Organisations must foster a culture of diversity and inclusion

Organisations must foster a culture of diversity and inclusion
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Senior men and women must support both genders and encourage development and promotions equally across the talent pool

By Keri Watkins

Published: Sat 29 Oct 2016, 7:42 PM

Last updated: Sat 29 Oct 2016, 9:48 PM

For as long as I can remember, women facing challenges in the workplace has been a topical issue which embraces many strong opinions. With every decade, we see more and more women in top leadership positions - perhaps the world will even witness the first female American president soon. But "more and more" is relative. The reality is that women are still less likely to be found in leadership positions and are less likely to receive a first promotion to manager in comparison to their male peers. For an organisation to allow top talent to thrive and meritocracy to reign, regardless of gender, the key to success is fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion and promoting an environment where stereotypes are challenged.

I have always been quite fortunate to be supported throughout my career - from trainee to senior associate - by strong, successful and compassionate women. I have always worked for firms where gender balance and diversity is an integral part of the company policy and this has been an important factor for me. In fact, researching all of my prospective employers' diversity policies was an integral part of my due diligence, and guided the decision-making process in selecting an environment in which I could develop personally and professionally.
Feminine or masculine?
Having worked in the legal profession for over 10 years, I have noticed that some people perceive senior female associates and partners as aggressive, dull and unfeminine. Often, a woman who is opinionated and is not scared to voice it is stereotypically seen by her peers as confrontational, antagonistic or belligerent.

This image may have come from US television - one example that comes to mind is Miranda Priestly - the scary, horrifying editor-in-chief of Runway magazine in the film The Devil Wears Prada. Maybe we should focus more on personalities such as Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund and one of the most powerful women in the world, who is described as kind, gentle and warm-hearted - or even encourage the portrayal of more fictional characters such as Khaleesi from the Game of Thrones, the compassionate mother of dragons that inspires her people.
Queen-bee syndrome
Female-to-female competitiveness is not uncommon in the workplace and the stereotypical scenario is that of the 'Queen-Bee Syndrome' -  the impression of women in top positions being less likely to mentor, help or encourage other women in fear of rivalry. The 'Queen-Bee' strives to play down her female colleague's ability so that she can highlight her own strengths. Such behaviour does exist at times unfortunately, but this attitude is changing - in fact, many firms and companies are establishing gender diversity networks and female networks, where female colleagues are encouraged to support each other despite the competitive arena.

To help drive the push for real change, women should strive to mentor younger women in the workplace, avoid the 'Queen-Bee Syndrome' and not pull the ladder up behind them.
Company commitment
Climbing that ladder is difficult enough, with women facing challenges from their organisations when proactively trying to manage their careers. Studies by Lean In and McKinsey & Company have shown that women in the workplace negotiate as often as men for raises and promotions, but often face push back when they do. In addition, they ask their bosses and mentors for feedback as often as their male peers, but are less likely to receive it. It would seem that companies' commitment to gender diversity today is at an all-time high, but they are struggling to put their commitment into practice - and many employees (both male and female) are not supportive of the plans.
Thinking ahead
Women in leadership positions have increased in the past decade and while the change has been more successful in some countries than others (due to several factors including policy and gender equality reforms), we see this trend also now being implemented across the globe.

Private and public reforms are enhancing the empowerment and advancement of women, and the UAE is a great example of a country actively seeking to support gender balance in the work environment and to ensure that women are given leading roles in the development of the country. In fact, research conducted by McKinsey & Company shows that 90 per cent of professional women in the GCC are not only in top positions but are also the first to have been hired to these positions.  

Despite these positive steps towards gender diversity, it is clear that women still have a long way to go in order to reach the top. It is important for both senior men and women to get on board by supporting both genders and encouraging development and promotions equally across the talent pool. At the end of the day, diversity begins at the top.
The author is a senior associate in the real estate practice of international law firm Baker & McKenzie Habib Al Mulla, based in Dubai. Views expressed are her own and do not reflect the newspaper's policy.

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