International Women’s Day, this year, provides us all with a valuable opportunity to reflect on gender equality, the progress that has been made and the work still to be done. It also provides businesses and organisations with a reminder to review how they promote gender equality and equal opportunities in the workplace.
In our Managing Mental Health workshop, we encourage leaders to explore equality, looking at discrimination, stereotypes and stigma in some detail. We discuss how equality law (The Equality Act 2010), prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the grounds of the 9 protected characteristics, which include sex (or gender) and gender reassignment. We also look at discrimination and stigma surrounding mental health conditions as well as the impact that inequality and discrimination can have on mental health.
During these sessions, leaders often share examples, either from their current organisation, or previous organisations, of stigma and/or discrimination that they’ve observed, or even been subjected to. Naturally, what can evolve from that is a passionate discussion about how damaging it is and can be to people’s mental health, and the impact this also has on the organisation in terms of presenteeism and loss of talent.
Whilst what they are saying is absolutely valid, these discussions frequently regurgitate the problem without leading to solutions or improvements. Repeatedly going over negative stories increases our stress hormone cortisol, leading to feelings of anger and powerlessness. But why is that?
The Problem Focused Approach
Our brain has a default negative bias which can cause us to seek out and dwell on dangers or problems. Our primitive brain is responsible for keeping us safe and if it spots a situation that might be harmful it causes us to become extra vigilant and obsessional, keeping us focused on the problem. This causes our stress hormone, cortisol, to increase which in turn keeps us in our primitive brain and (again) focused on the problem. The reason our primitive brain does this is simply because its priority is self-preservation.
However, our primitive brain is not intellectual or inventive and it cannot come up with new solutions to our problems. It simply keeps us focused on the problems and rolls out the same old behaviours, or coping strategies, that it perceives have kept us safe previously.
In order for us to be creative and innovative and find solutions to our problems, we need to access the intellectual part of our brain – our left prefrontal cortex. This is the conscious part of your brain that is logical and rational and it’s ultimately able to make a proper assessment of the situation we’re in.
If we look at this with regard to gender inequality, identifying and focusing on all inequality, discrimination and stigma can cause us to remain focused on the problem and can hold us back from moving forward with the solutions.
Of course, identifying that there are inequalities is the first step to moving forward, we just don’t want to get stuck focused on the problems, as this creates anxiety and anger and keeps us stuck, in our primitive brain, and in the problem.
So, what can we do to create gender quality in the workplace?
The Solution Focused Approach
Using the solution focused approach, we first identify that we’d like things to be different. In the case of the International Women’s Day mission, these things are: gender inequality, discrimination and stigma, and the aim is: to create an equal world.
Once we’ve identified what we’d like to be different we need to focus on how we’d like things to be, rather than how we don’t want things to be. Focusing on a vision for equality, rather than on current examples of inequality and discrimination.
This changes the question from “How do we prevent gender inequality in the workplace?” to “How can we create gender equality in the workplace?”
This year’s International Women’s Day mission statement phrases this perfectly, addressing the current problem but then quickly shifting the focus to imagining how we’d like things to be.
“Imagine a gender equal world:
A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination.
A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
A world where difference is valued and celebrated.
Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.”
And of course, a gender equal world includes a gender equal workplace.
A workplace that is a place of comfort and growth for both men and women. A world where orgnaisations provide their people with an identity which enhances self-esteem, a peer group, which provides connection, a sense of purpose, which fulfils the need for contribution and structure to daily life.
Does your organisation have a vision for a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace?
How might that impact the mental health of your people and the wider organisation?
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IS YOUR ORGANISATION DOING ENOUGH To Promote Positive Mental Health At Work?
Find out by taking our quick Mental Health At Work Quiz This short quiz will take you through the six areas of ‘work design’ that highlight the primary sources of stress at work that, when not managed well, are associated with poor mental health and can lead to increased absenteeism and presenteeism, resulting in reduced creativity, productivity and results.