19 October 2023

Those who don't acknowledge the relevance and impacts of gender equality in the workplace have likely never experienced it. Indeed, with more companies advertising their stance as inclusive and forward-thinking businesses, it can be difficult to identify microaggressions which consistently target women in positions of leadership in UK businesses.

More recently, Lori Nishiura Mackenzie, (DEI Strategist) argues that women within positions of power suffer the "likeability penalty"- an overt criticization of leadership qualities, such as assertion, that is rarely applied to men at the same level. How can we challenge our own unconscious biases which contribute to the "likeability penalty"? What are the red and green flags we can look out for to ensure current and prospective companies continue to advocate for the voices of women?

The "Likeability Penalty"

In simple terms, the "likeability penalty" refers to the double standard faced by women in positions of leadership and management in comparison to their male counterparts. It all begins with the language we use, and the semantics associated; the fine line of unconscious bias that lies between the adjectives "assertive" and "bossy". The qualities we associate with the most successful business leaders, Mackenzie argues, are often identified as a negative rather than a positive when displayed by women, resulting in them having to choose between being liked and being respected. According to FTSE 250 (published in April 2023), whilst the number of women in positions of senior leadership increased by nearly 7% over a five year period between 2017-2021, women's representation in the UK business sector was still dramatically under represented (sitting at just over 30% of the workforce).

A Double-Edged Sword

One of Mackenzie's main assertations is that the "likeability penalty" ultimately results in a "likeability vs. competence trade-off": emphasising that women who take deliberate steps to come across as more likeable are then stereotyped as less-competent. Of course, this reaction to women's' performative personalities in professional settings is incredibly reductive - it goes without saying that women do not exist within a binary of personality traits that signify their capability in roles and careers that they have built through their own tenacity and drive. Nevertheless, Mackenzie identifies that this reduction makes it more difficult for women to progress at the same rate as men, providing another barrier within UK businesses raising the percentage of women in positions of senior leadership.

Far Reaching Impacts

It's important to emphasise here that whilst the "likeability penalty" refers directly to women in business, it also encompasses minority groups who must "temper" their leadership qualities in an attempt to appear non-abrasive. Particularly, Mackenzie's analysis can be directly attributed to the "angry black woman" stereotype at work, which was reported in the Harvard Business Review in January 2022. According to the article, "this pervasive stereotype not only characterizes Black women as more hostile, aggressive, overbearing, illogical, ill-tempered and bitter, but it may also be holding them back from realizing their full potential in the workplace — and shaping their work experiences overall."

Green Flags for Prospective Talent

With greater pressure on businesses to appear inclusive, it can sometimes feel as though phrased like "diversity, equality and inclusion" are mere buzz words used to appeal to future employees and tick boxes on corporate forms. The real difference between appearing inclusive and being inclusive is in fact incredibly simple; consistency. It's all well and good for companies to have a diverse and inclusive senior leadership team, but there needs to be a trickle-down of sharing knowledge and opportunity that ensure that they continue to diversify as they grow i.e. UK's Best Workplaces for Women consistently updated and actioned DEI plans, enhanced maternity leave, etc. Candidates are more educated and empowered than a lot of companies give them credit for, and will know the difference between a business that uses diversity as a marketing tool, and one which consistently champions the voices of women and minority groups.

Red Flags for Prospective Talent

Red flags are, naturally, the antithesis of green flags for prospective talent. This means you'll see women thriving as part of the business, with consistent opportunities to progress and a diverse senior leadership team. Companies who are diverse, rather than just saying they're diverse, will reap the rewards, as more and more candidates are becoming savvy to the use of DEI as a marketing strategy. Low staff turnover despite ambitious growth plans will likely indicate an environment which supports existing teams and takes their personal progressions into consideration when making long term plans. Check to see if they have a DEI officer in place, or practical solutions to continuously improving that exist outside of the HR tick box. Extended maternity/paternity pay and packages are also indicative of a company that values their employees, and can support team members (regardless of gender) by ensuring that new parents have options and flexibility when it comes to returning to work.

Actively Advocating

As a progression partners, our role is not only to help talent to find a new role; it's also to advocate for them at every opportunity. We want to empower you by ensuring that your job search doesn't see you sacrifice your goals, progression and values. Whilst the job spec is important, we know that it won't tell you everything you want to know about the company, and we can offer insights into the working cultures and practices of some of the top agencies in the healthcare communications sector.

We are lucky enough to be part of a sector that consistently has higher percentages of women and minorities in positions of leadership, but it's our responsibility to ensure that we continue to reinforce DEI structures that will support the next generation of senior leaders, and to maintain pressure on the wider UK business market to catch up, and keep up.

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