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American Express VP Karen Penney on why diversity conversations must include men

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The 5th of September 2015 marked 20 years since Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state, delivered her historic Beijing speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women.

“It is time for us to say, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights,” Clinton said. “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, it is that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”

While Clinton was talking about women’s rights violations all around the world – she focused heavily on the plight of those in the US. But what about in the UK?

Research from the Government Equalities Office found that while the gender pay gap for female full time employees had been closing since the 1970s, the pay gap of part time female employees had remained surprisingly constant. Even today, women in full time jobs earn 9.5 per cent less than men. 

But let’s not forget that the percentage of women taking the director’s seat has gone up – 21 per cent of FTSE 100 company directors are women, up from 13 per cent in 2011. And for the first time, since June 2014, there are no all-male FTSE 100 boards.

There’s no doubt that the female agenda has come a long way, but arguably the greatest hurdle currently holding women back is that of unconscious bias. It can be argued that women’s and men’s ideas about gender roles in the household and labour market can be stereotypical. Hence, there are gender differences in workplace attitudes and aspirations.

With much the same opinion as Clinton, Karen Penney, vice president and general manager of American Express’s UK division, is of the belief that diversity means the inclusion of all. 

“Diversity is more than just about women,” she stressed. “It’s about being open-minded to different opinions, views on life, ethics and cultural grounds.” And she believes one of the best methods to close the gender gap is by instilling a corporate culture which extends its support to both genders.

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Penney further highlighted that programmes and training for both men and women could go a long way in establishing an “all for one and one for all” type of culture. In order to redefine the cultural norm, bosses and employers alike needed to promote change through advocacy and example – without resisting. 

Strategies that support women’s empowerment can contribute to women’s ability to formulate and advocate their own visions for the workplace – including interpretations and changes to cultural and gender norms, she explained. This point has previously been stressed by the CIDA’s Policy on Gender Equality

“Empowerment is about people – both women and men – taking control of their lives: setting their own agendas, gaining skills, building self-confidence, solving problems, and developing self-reliance,” the CIDA said. “Outsiders cannot empower women: only women can empower themselves to make choices or speak out on their own behalf. However, businesses can support processes that increase women’s self-confidence, develop their self-reliance, and help them set their own agendas.”

Although it is often overlooked, the diversity debate extends to men as well as women. Just as there are cultural norms about women’s roles, there are expectations of men as leaders, husbands and sons that shape their behaviour and opportunities – especially in the workplace.

“There’s a lot of female role models for women these days, but I don’t think women should just focus on women as their role models,” Penney suggested. “It’s equally as important to have a balanced view of what men are good at as well. This type of mind set is what makes people really successful. Research that we’ve done has shown that if you show a woman a job description they would focus on the parts that they can’t do rather than those that they can.

“If you showed the same job description to a man, he would focus on the positives and be more likely to say that he could do the role. Women like to feel comfortable about their level of knowledge, their preparation, their experience, and perhaps they’re just a bit more – or a bit too – realistic. Again I think that’s a cultural concept that we need to help women overcome. Nobody really expects you to be an expert in every area, particularly when it’s a promotion, where you expect people to develop into a role.”

In this sense, Penney believes that the gains for businesses and the key to a more happy workforce, rests in women and men learning from each other and making use of their different thought processes.

“Having an awareness of such differences really enables you to work better together,” she said. “This is where the growth mind set comes into play. Part of a growth mind set is being able to acknowledge that things can go wrong and being able to realise that you’re heading down the wrong route – which enables you to pivot and go down a different route. Now that the business scape is moving so quickly you need to be able to make changes and be nimble. Diversity of ideas is crucial to growing your business and being stuck in a fixed mind set could cause a company to go out of business. We all need to change, and we all need to do so quickly.”

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