Gender is the Trojan Horse of diversity

Diversity needs to be built on common values, says Mars global food boss Fiona Dawson.

by Fiona Dawson
Last Updated: 28 Feb 2018

I have been in business now for 30 years, and have always believed that women represent an incredibly powerful yet still untapped resource. The tragedy is that there is no shortage of talent or ambition among women in the workplace.  All too often however, women’s career progression can come to a standstill, the most notable being when they reach middle management.

Data from the UK shows that 73% of entry-level roles are occupied by women, yet this only translates into 34% of female managers, directors and senior officials. Despite many improvements in regulations and legislation, this proportion has only increased by one percentage point in the last six years.

If we want to unblock our talent pipelines, we need stronger interventions at a business enterprise level to change workplaces and organisational cultures, and these changes must be led from the top. 

Mars partnered with the UK Women’s Business Council last year to create ‘The Pipeline Effect’, a toolkit for enabling gender parity beyond middle management. In it we identify obstacles to women’s progress mid-career, of which a lack of role models was one. There is an important need for more female role models of all ages and levels who are approachable and relatable.  We must have role models who are honest about their own their experiences and how they manage their trade-offs, as opposed to being portrayed as ‘superwomen’ who ‘have it all.’ 

I’m thrilled that this month Mars is showcasing positive role models by shining a spotlight on some of our women in STEM. These amazing women are demonstrating first hand that it’s possible to have successful careers in areas which are traditionally underrepresented.

The power of role models

When I was growing up I had a number of role models. The most important was undoubtedly my mum, who encouraged all three of her children to do their best whatever their chosen path. In her 20s, she enjoyed a successful career in HR, but sadly had her employment terminated on marrying my father, under a rule which stayed on the statute books until 1973 called ‘The Marriage Ban’. This sense of injustice fuelled her with a belief that, should people want to, they should be free to follow their careers irrespective of personal circumstances. 

During my teens my other role model was Mary Robinson, the first female Prime Minister of Ireland. She really inspired me at a pivotal moment in my life. I loved the fact that she got the job, although she wasn’t the natural successor. She totally broke the mould of women in leadership positions for me (this was the era of Dynasty, large shoulder pads and the ‘dog eat dog’ mindset). She was softly-spoken and a humanitarian, yet her authority was unquestionable: somehow she managed to be incredibly powerful without compromising her values.

Build on common values

Fundamentally, I believe that having a strong sense of your personal values enable you to find meaning in your work and perform at your best. If you can combine a role where your personal values match with a job, and a culture, you enjoy, you can deliver extraordinary results.

Sharing common values does not mean surrounding yourself with people in your own likeness – in fact that can be incredibly dangerous. Rather it can provide the bedrock to allow for even greater diversity of thought, gender and passport, in the knowledge you are all trying to strive for the same goal. 

I have experienced that diversity enables better collective decision-making - at the moment my Global Management team has a strong gender split, with nine different nationalities across 11 roles.

The need for diversity in decision making is backed up by significant academic research, for instance by Scott Page, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, and author of The Diversity Bonus, and can be especially useful when there are tough issues to conquer – my team are not afraid of challenging me and giving me honest feedback, which is often much needed!

Encouraging people to bring their authentic selves to work is the end goal of inclusivity. And by making our workplaces more inclusive we will ultimately be able to improve business performance.

Gender is the Trojan horse of diversity. If we frame our conversations about workplace diversity purely in terms of gender alone then we are only just figuring out part of the problem. But if we can make much-needed progress in gender diversity, eventually we can pave the way for future successes across all other diversity barriers and make our workplaces more inclusive. 

Image credit: Muratart/Shutterstock

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