A ‘culture of equality’- how can I be part of it? This is a question which features heavily in workplace relations at the moment, and one which was raised by London Business School’s Women in Business Conference in March. I was lucky enough to be able to attend this established conference in London and learn a huge amount in the process. To do my part to help shape a culture of equality, I am going to share some of what I learnt there.
The tone of the conference was set during the keynote address by Clare Woodman, Head of EMEA and CEO of Morgan Stanley. Woodman’s emphasis on inclusive leadership and tackling the power of unconscious bias in the work place injected a feeling of positivity, which would be reflected in other sessions throughout the day.
During the panel on the Economic Advantages of Inclusion, the panellists stressed the importance of diversity for innovation. A diverse workplace encourages problem-solving and reduces group-think. A diverse workplace leads towards a culture of equality, which in turn creates an innovation mindset. Practically, this means a diverse business is able to determine the needs of all their customers, not just those of a certain type. Through a diverse perspective it can create products or services which cater to the whole population, rather than just fifty-percent. (Think of how many times you have wished for more pockets on your clothes or can’t find shoes that fit, have found the office too cold or, for astronaut Anne McClain, couldn’t do your job because there wasn’t a spacesuit in your size). The panellists further stated that although there was lots of talk about creating cultures of equality and inclusion in business, what that meant in practice was less defined. It was agreed that a culture of equality needs to be actively created. This is done through bold leadership, comprehensive action ( such as policies and frameworks throughout the business) and an empowering environment.
The three panellists for the plenary panel Women that were First had certainly aimed to create cultures of equality within their organisations. Dr Mandeep Rai (CEO of Creative Visions) talked of the importance of having a ‘value system’, for yourself and your company- for both leaders and employees are driven by their values. She stressed how essential it is to make sure your job role fits with your value system, and that values surrounding inclusion and purpose are good for business.
Rai pressed the importance of believing you have something to contribute. Gail Klintworth emphasised that you must act upon this belief. She asked us “what is your personal agency? How can you use it to do something worthwhile?” In a similar vein, Susanna Kempe (CEO of Laidlaw Foundation) stated that once you have pictured your goal, simply go ahead and set about achieving it.
In reality, however, achieving your goal is often not so simple a task, especially for women in the workplace. The workshops during the afternoon suggested techniques to help achieve your goals and succeed at your job.
The Confidence and Competence workshop by Dr Laura Wendt aimed to demonstrate why confidence beats competence in business. Wendt emphasised, much as Rai and Klintworth had done, how believing in yourself makes a huge difference. She asserted that women tend to under-estimate their abilities whereas men, on average, rate their abilities to be thirty-percent better than they actually are. Wendt’s tips for building confidence included: responding constructively to negative feedback; keeping a file of your successes to look at when you need a confidence boost; and using more assertive language with colleagues, such as replacing “I’m sorry” with “excuse me”, or “sorry I’m late” with “thank you for waiting”.
The Growth Mindset workshop run by Dr Aneeta Rattan focused on the importance of having a positive response to failure. When you fail, do you have a ‘mastery’ voice rather than an ‘helpless’ one? How quickly after failure do you switch from negative emotion to problem-solving? Recovering and learning from failure is a sign of a growth, rather than a fixed mindset. The important thing to remember, Rattan stressed, is that a person’s mindset is not concrete, no one has a growth mindset all the time. Indeed, we can learn how to use a growth mindset!
Rattan asked each of us to think about a time when we meaningfully failed. Why did you fail? How did you feel? How did you respond in the short-term and the long? The more positivity and constructiveness you feel during and after failing, the more you are cultivating a growth mindset mentality. The growth mindset helps a person learn from their mistakes, reducing the negative effects of failing and (hopefully) lessening the chance of failing again! This was a very positive message, and one which sat well with the overall tone of the conference.
I found the conference to be infused with useful, practical advice on both the broader theme of creating a culture of equality and the more individual instruction on self- and career-development. Both of these messages were invaluable. It was encouraging to discuss similar experiences (“how often are women told to smile more?” “how often are we told ‘no’”?) and obstacles (such as unconscious bias) and, importantly, some solutions to these obstacles. The range of jobs and experience the attendees held made for interesting conversations and insights and hearing from inclusive, successful leaders was inspiring. What was impressed upon me most during the conference, however, was the importance of not just thinking about creating a productive, inclusive and positive culture of equality, but of actively doing something to create a business or work environment where this is possible. That may be something small, like attending this conference, or something much larger as demonstrated by the work of many of the conference speakers.