Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

Catalysts and advocates for gender change

Growing the support base and making supporters visible is critical to success in any culture change initiative. In a gender change initiative, it is now well understood that recruiting men to the change process is key. Male Champions for Change is a successful example of such an initiative, aimed exclusively at senior powerful men. Initiatives that are now emerging take that a step further. They are designed to broaden the support base, recruiting men and women at multiple levels of the organisation to be visible and active in their support for gender change. Before I explore two examples, one at ALCOA and the other at the Walter Eliza Hall Research Institute (WEHI), I want to examine some recent research that suggests this is a powerful strategy.

Dobbin and Kalev (2016) in their Harvard Business Review article Why Diversity Programs Fail highlighted some of the difficulties with approaches such as mandatory diversity training. As they say ‘we can’t motivate people by forcing them to get with the program and punishing them if they don’t’ (p.60).  Instead they found that the most effective programs:

  • engage people in working for diversity,
  • increase their contact with women and minorities, and
  • tap into their desire to look good to others.

What piqued my interest was the work around cognitive dissonance.

When someone's beliefs and behavior are out of sync, that person experiences what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”. Experiments show that people have a strong tendency to "correct" dissonance by changing either the beliefs or the behavior. So, if you prompt them to act in ways that support a particular view, their opinions shift toward that view.

When we choose to label ourselves as supporters we try to live up to that label. We strengthen both our thinking and our behaviours. It allows us to consolidate our position, moving us from passive and invisible to active and visible.

I think the beauty of the ‘I’m an Athena SWAN Advocate (ASA)’ initiative at WEHI is that it provides people with easy ways to strengthen their advocacy and become visible. It has become a key part of WEHI’s involvement in the gender equity Athena SWAN accreditation program for STEMM institutions, and provides a model for institutions likewise engaged in the Athena SWAN pilot program in Australia.

So how does it work? The seed of the idea for ASA came from Professor Terry Speed, an eminent scientist well known for his support and advocacy for improving gender equality in research.  Prompted by his desire to involve more men yet not wishing to be exclusive, and following discussion with colleagues, it evolved into a scheme for all.  People sign up on the website, endorse the 10 Athena SWAN principles and agree to demonstrate this through: 

  1. Promoting Athena SWAN in their immediate workplace,
  2. Calling out sexist behaviour wherever it occurs, and
  3. Supporting 50:50, if not why not.

Approximately 20% of WEHI staff have signed on, with many wearing the ASA badge attached to their ID lanyard. People are encouraged to add the text ‘I’m an Athena SWAN Advocate. I call out sexism and promote equality' to their email signatures. ASA has provided a way for leaders to show their support, with many male leaders doing so.  The list itself becomes a valuable resource, helping to identify people who might then be invited to become members of working parties and as contributors to other Athena SWAN activities. 

ALCOA were recently highlighted in the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) newsletter for their Catalysts for Change (C4C), a call to action initiative to improve ALCOA’s recruitment, development and retention of women. Pledges to support the advancement of women are posted on work stations at refineries, mine sites and head office. Now in place for over a year the company are reporting good results, including increased recruitment of female apprentices, and increased mentoring and secondment opportunities for women.

The Dobbin and Kalev article is thought provoking and worth a read. ASA and C4C resonate both with the research and the common sense approach of assisting the often silent majority to become active and visible supporters of change.  

DOBBIN, F. & KALEV, A. 2016. Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review, July August, 52-60