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#HeForSheWhitehall - why we first need to understand gender inequality

By Lesley Fordyce, PA government and public sector expert

American author Stephen Covey coined the phrase ‘seek first to understand’. And there’s no quote that more appropriately summaries of one of the key themes that emerged from the recent #HeForSheWhitehall event.

If you’ve not come across it yet, the UN Women’s ‘ HeForShe’ campaign encourages men to act as agents of change to take action against negative inequalities women face. And at PA, we were lucky enough to join forces with the Cabinet Office Gender Equality Group and Foreign Commonwealth Office Women to make the event happen.

Here’s who made up the panel:

  • Laura Haynes, Chair, UK National Committee, UN Women
  • Janice Charette, Canadian High Commissioner to the UK
  • Sir Martin Donnelly, former Permanent Secretary, Department for International Trade
  • John Manzoni, Chief Executive, Civil Service
  • Karen Pierce, Political Director, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  • Joy Hutcheon, Director General, Department for International Development

So what jumped out at me from discussions?

Reflect on yourself

How often do you stop and reflect on how privileged you are in terms of your life experiences – family support, health and wellbeing, education and employment opportunities? It’s important we all pause, take time to reflect and remind ourselves our perspective may not be as unbiased as we think – or as inclusive as we’d want.

  • How often are you the only one of your gender in a meeting?
  • Do you really understand what it’s like to be the primary carer of a child or elderly parent and the impact this has on the working day?
  • Do you respect different styles rather than assume we’re all extroverts who like to be the centre of attention?
  • Are you confident that daughters, sisters, female friends will have the same work experiences and opportunities as sons, brothers and male friends? If not, what are you personally going to do about it?

Change organisational norms

Once we’ve truly reflected on our own level of understanding and how we can effect change in our own behaviour, only then can we turn our attention to changing the organisational norms that exist. We recognise gender equality isn’t simply an organisational issue, but poor awareness and bad behaviours within organisations do have negative and lasting effects.

And ‘fixing the organisation’ is an improvement on ‘fixing the women’ (which has been a strategy for some). Do you really know what needs to be fixed within your organisation and how to do it?

  • Are you having the right conversations? Correction, are you even having conversations? Are you creating safe places for colleagues to share concerns and also to learn?
  • Are you pushing your organisation to think about how you deal with challenging issues – calling out poor behaviours, delivering pay parity?
  • Are you open to creative ways of learning, eg reverse mentoring?

Change society norms

This is the ultimate mission. Lasting change will only come about if we accept a fair society is about all of us giving of our best and having the opportunities to do so. We all need to take the time to understand and explore the talents of individuals and make informed choices based on this information. And this information only. We need to stop trying to fix, mould or re-orientate women and instead, focus energy on creating the conditions for all to be successful.

All in all, it was a real privilege to be able to attend this event. And while the discussion was inspiring and motivating, it was also very uncomfortable. But only good can come out of this – it reminds us all there’s still much work to be done.

Find out more about our work in government.

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