King’s Debate: Positive action – the best way to break through the glass ceiling?

[This article is from the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of InTouch, your alumni magazine]

Following the furore around the gender pay gap at the BBC, it feels as if there has been a sea-change in what will be tolerated by women in the workplace. But are organisational initiatives such as positive action key to helping women and under-represented groups finally break the glass ceiling?

The phrase ‘glass ceiling’ was coined 40 years ago to describe challenges faced by women trying to advance in business and government. Fast forward to 2018 and it’s still an issue, as recent high- profile coverage of the gender pay gap in UK organisations demonstrates.

In this article, we ask two women passionate about diversity, but with very different viewpoints, whether initiatives such as positive action really are the ‘silver bullet’ to creating equality for all. In addition, alumnae share how they’ve taken the challenge to create equality in the workplace into their own hands.

Positive action is part of the solution…

Sarah Guerra

Sarah Guerra, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at King’s, believes positive action is an important way to increase diversity at King’s and beyond.

‘Research shows more diverse organisations tend to be more profitable and efficient. Different perspectives can bring creativity and innovation to decision-making.

‘At King’s, we believe it’s important to have the same breadth in our workforce that we have among our students, so that students feel they belong. We’ve made diversity and inclusion a cornerstone of our long-term vision – Vision 2029 – and invested in that, not just in terms of finance but resource too.

‘Positive action is just one of the tools that can help promote diversity. It’s not about giving people who are not good enough an unfair advantage. It’s about correcting an unlevel playing field, removing personal or organisational barriers to allow everyone to compete fairly. For example, if there are two applicants for a position and one is in a wheelchair, and the job interview is down some stairs, the person in the wheelchair is disadvantaged… unless there’s a lift. By providing a lift, both people can get there, and they might both be good enough for the job.’

Promoting women in STEMM

Figures from 2017 show that women held 23 per cent of roles in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) occupations (according to WISE, the campaign for gender balance in STEM subjects).This is something King’s has been working to address and Sarah and her team continue to champion.

‘King’s promotes Athena SWAN to support women in academic life by tracking gender equality, especially in STEMM areas – science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine. This commitment to gender equality has been recognised, with King’s winning its first institutional Bronze Athena SWAN award in 2008, which was renewed again in 2013.’

Addressing unconscious bias

While the number of women pursuing STEMM careers can be influenced by individual choices, as well as the environment and support around them, “unconscious bias” is one of the hidden factors that prevent some people advancing.

Sarah explains: ‘At King’s, we’ve developed “unconscious bias” training for senior leaders. These sessions help managers to understand the barriers that are faced by students and staff, and how they can lead as inclusively as possible.

‘The theory is that as people become more self-aware, and recognise their biases, then women and people of colour will break through. The dramatic effect “unconscious bias” can have has been seen within the music industry, where it was felt that “unconscious bias” might exist against female musicians auditioning for orchestras. To test this, some orchestras started holding “blind” auditions, with musicians auditioning behind a screen. Lo and behold, the gender balance started changing dramatically. When the conductor was only listening to what the person could do, the women were found to be just as good.’

Jacqueline Robbins

Real Progression

Jacqueline Robbins (PhD Neuroscience Research, 2017) believes passionately that the gender gap needs to be addressed, and was pleased when King’s committed to addressing this as a result of her campaigning. Now more women sit on pay and promotion panels, which should help more women advance, helping to close the pay gap.

‘After King’s response I was really excited that the university was committing to positive changes, by offering the job to a woman if two candidates were equally qualified in departments with an imbalance. It made me feel that we may see real progression for all women during my career, and proud to be part of an institution seriously tackling this issue.’

Positive action can set women up for failure…

Dr Sabrina Bajwah

Dr Sabrina Bajwah (PhD Palliative Medicine, 2015) is a consultant and honorary senior lecturer in the Department of Palliative Care, Policy & Rehabilitation. She strongly supports equality, but believes that building strong role models and mentors is the best way to break the glass ceiling.

The importance of role models

‘Women have a tendency to undersell themselves and hide their ambition. I think strong, successful women should be applauded and encouraged to act as role models to young girls. Recently here at King’s we ran a campaign that celebrated female professors, and BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] women were highlighted. We need more things like that.

‘Every woman who achieves should help other women to move up the ladder. Because of my own background, as a British Pakistani Muslim, I’m interested in mentoring BAME girls from working-class backgrounds. For these girls to achieve, education is not enough. They need role models and support. If they aren’t getting it at home then they need to get it from somebody else that they can relate to.’

Confidence is key

‘To really excel in a role you need to have confidence. However, positive action is often confused with positive discrimination, and it doesn’t instil confidence in the individual. People see it as people being given preferential treatment, rather than removing barriers. It sets them up for failure, which in turn reinforces negative stereotypes.

‘People need to know they’re in a role because of their experience, skills and potential, not because of their gender, colour or background, or to tick a box for their employers. Showing preference for a race or gender can breed resentment in the workplace, leaving individuals socially isolated without the support of their peers.’

Women of colour face additional barriers

‘Discrimination and biases at work can be particularly tough for women of colour. Women such as myself not only have to break the glass ceiling, they also face the “bamboo ceiling”. Sometimes that’s the bigger barrier. There are lots of reasons for this, but it includes prejudice within and outside the community about what we can or should achieve. Pakistani Muslim women are one of the most under-represented ethnic minorities in STEMM.’

An individualised approach

Sabrina is adamant, though, that the best solution involves employers being more transparent and accountable for the support they provide: ‘There needs to be a documented individual assessment of each person’s potential and the support they need to break barriers and achieve. It shouldn’t just be a blanket “You’re this colour or this sex so you get more support than everybody else”. At the end of the day, we all need to succeed on our own merit. That’s when our achievements as women will feel like they have been truly earned.’

Attitude is key to breaking discrimination

Rita Shah

Rita Kakati Shah (Mathematics & Management, 2001) set up her own company, Uma, to help people – mainly women – back into work after a career break. She believes developing personal skills and a winning attitude can be more effective than trying to change a system that is unequal and often unfair.

Rita launched her company because of her own experience after four years out of the workforce to raise her children:

‘I was not seen as a career person any more. I wasn’t ambitious. I was a quitter. It was a harsh reality and I had to change that.

‘At Uma, we encourage people to push back. Being a mother isn’t a dent in your career. It is an experience with extremely valid skills: teamwork, organisation, finance and the ability to deal with constant change. I call it being the CEO of the household.

‘However, if you want to go back to what you did before, it’s important to keep up to date with your old industry. When you go for an interview you should be confident, know the job and be ready to go.

‘I set up my company to empower people; to build confidence and important skills, such as networking and interview skills, and emotional support so that they can succeed for themselves. But then you’re basically on your own. We’re not guaranteeing jobs, or a promotion. It’s important to network and take charge, find that role model or mentor in order to progress to the next level.’

In conclusion

While initiatives such as positive action can help address inequalities, they can also be misunderstood. The employment market should be fairer and more transparent, regardless of the industry – whether public, private, education or entertainment.

Individuals, too, should feel empowered to take destiny into their own hands and do what they can to find their own path to success. And it is clear that both sides of this debate agree on the importance of role models and mentors.


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