Don’t let the Wonder in Women break — Fighting the bystander effect in gender inequality with three steps anyone can take today #PressforProgress
by Marion Neubronner and Hazel Lebiga
Fifty-four years ago, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally attacked while walking home from work. However, unlike the usual run-of-the-mill murder mystery on an episode of Law and Order or CSI, thirty-eight neighbors heard her being stabbed to death and not one of them called the police while hearing the attack.
This murder would go down as one of the most infamous in modern U.S. history, causing the creation of the precursor to the 911 emergency number and inspiring decades of psychological research into the phenomenon known as the bystander effect, where the more witnesses there are to an emergency event, the less likely an individual bystander is inclined to help. Coincidentally, the year Kitty’s murder took place was 1964, a monumental year when the Civil Rights Act was put into action to end segregation and ban employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, and religion, sex, and national origin.
Fast forward to today, when there is still discrimination in the workplace due to gender, and there are millions of people in positions to help women achieve gender equality but stand passively by, expecting “someone else” — whether it be government, corporations, or nonprofits — to take the necessary action to make change happen. This hard-earned movement stands to bleed out unless an intervention of monumental proportions takes place. There are steps that anyone can take today, regardless of background, beliefs, or status, to prevent the death of one of the most important movements in our society. It starts with understanding the reasons driving the gender gap, its impact on the world at large, why people aren’t helping, and what you can do to make it better.
Gender gap progress is in a state of emergency
Despite decades of monumental efforts, closing the global gender equality gap has stalled. The World Economic Forum has shown a dramatic slowdown compared to predictions made only a year prior, with the most alarming conclusion revealing that it will take an additional 47 years for women to achieve workplace equality — resulting in a 217-year process instead of the 170-year one predicted in 2016. The report cites two major contributing factors to the gender gap: 1) A mere 58% of the economic participation gap has been closed — a second consecutive year of reversed progress and lowest value since 2008, and 2) an appalling 23% closure of the political gap, which remains unchanged since the prior year.
The Cost of Doing Nothing
Instead of instilling a sense of doom, these numbers should inspire a sense of urgency in everyone regardless of their personal perspectives on gender issues, since the entire world is taking on major losses every year these gaps remain open. Gender equality has an extremely expensive price tag as the consequence of inaction.
Foregone GDP. Losses are experienced on national levels when gender inequalities persist. The World Economic Forum estimates that the following GDP gains could be made by these countries with reducing the economic participation gap by 25% by 2025: $2.5 trillion to China, $1.75 trillion to the United States, $550 billion to Japan, $320 billion to France, $310 to Germany, and $250 billion to the United Kingdom. The entire world is missing out on a total of $5.3 trillion because these inequalities are allowed to persist.
Lost profits. Any company not actively hiring and promoting women in order to diversify its talent pool is negatively impacting profits. A 2016 study by Credit Suisse found that companies where women composed 15% of senior managers had 18% higher profitability than companies with less than 10% representation. Having a woman CEO drove profitability up by 19%. In a highly competitive, global marketplace, many companies simply cannot afford almost a 20% impairment on their profits. However, by refusing to take steps to address gender diversity, foregoing profits will inevitably take place.
Decreased returns. Catalyst research also reports that companies with the more women on boards had 16% higher Return on Sales than those with the less women. There was also 26% higher Return on Invested Capital. However, the same research revealed that until a certain critical mass is attained, namely at least three women on management committees for an average membership of 10 people, no significant difference in company performance is observed. This research demonstrates that having a token woman in a board seat is not enough, and it takes at least three women in order to change boardroom dynamics to the point that women’s voices are acknowledged. Credit Suisse reports that only 15% of companies have this proportion of women on their boards, and that companies must strive to do more to add more diverse opinions to higher levels of leadership.
Calling out the causes
Decades of strong first steps toward giving women more opportunities has lulled many into complacency instead of driving the discussion further. Too many companies tout themselves as being equal and gender blind, taking part in “gender-washing” much like the green-washing or CSR (corporate social responsibility)-washing trends of years past, where many resources were dedicated to advertising but not inspiring, measuring, and effecting change. History has proven that lip-service is not enough, and that deeper societal, psychological, and value-driven changes must take place instead of simply a show-and-tell of job opportunities and appointments that do not significantly change the balance of women leaders or even represent changes happening on every level of corporate leadership.
While there are cultural beliefs and systemic issues that many global researchers have done well to expose as perpetuating the gender gap globally, little discussion has taken place to address individual hesitance to help. In a study of global bystander nonintervention, Pittinsky and Diamante reveal significant factors that impact, on an individual level, the fight for equality:
This is an emergency. Research across multiple countries and companies is in consensus that gender equality is a pressing issue that demands action. However, a Pew Research study revealed that 35% of the global population believes enough has been done for women to possess equal rights. Recognizing that the gender gap is a serious situation that everyone can positively contribute to is a first step toward progress. Pittinsky and Diamante also found that if a situation is ambiguous and isn’t perceived as an emergency, people are less inclined to help. Since people lean toward assessing an ambiguous situation by seeing how others are reacting, and if they observe others are also uncertain or not helping, the situation isn’t interpreted as an emergency. This can in part explain why if people do not see others actively championing equal rights in the workplace, then they are less inclined to take action in challenging discriminatory beliefs or behavior.
You (yes, you) need to take responsibility. Researchers have observed that if multiple people see the need for help and simultaneously know others have witnessed the same need, they anticipate that someone else will help and they do not have to do it. No doubt this is not the first article many have seen regarding International Women’s Day or gender inequality; however, this may in turn lead some to the conclusion that your individual help isn’t needed. If you have seen this article “liked” or “shared” by others, the diffusion of responsibility can intensify merely by the fact that you have witnessed other people being exposed to it. While not everyone is necessarily at fault for creating the gender gap, it is everyone’s responsibility, on behalf of our companies, our nations, and our futures, to take steps in eliminating it.
Your unique set of skills and gifts qualify you to help. Lastly, the Pittinsky and Diamante study demonstrated that perceived competency was the final condition determining one’s decision to help. If someone perceives that they are not the most competent person, compared to others, and that there are people with more education or money, he or she will fail to act. In many ways, the global community passively believes that it is the government’s, NGO’s, corporations’, or nonprofits’ job to lessen the gender gap, when it is in fact everyone’s individual contribution that can make the most impact. As the researchers noticed, “There is an intriguing and disturbing possibility that celebratory accounts of the help offered by particular people and organizations may suppress rather than inspire others to help.” There is no reason to compare yourself to others, or that you need to leave the job to “larger and more competent” institutions. Don’t stress about your (in)abilities or let inhibitions take hold on your perspective — who you are today is enough to start taking the actions that make a better tomorrow.
With this knowledge in mind, both men and women need to join forces among the 65% of global advocates who believe that more can be done to improve women’s rights around the world by taking the following steps:
· Reflect. Research has sadly noted that “there is little doubt that traditional, deeply conservative attitudes regarding the role of women have made their integration into the world of public decision making extremely difficult” (Lopez-Carlo 2005). Everyone is biased at some level, it’s a matter of being intellectually honest with your level of bias and trying to actively change — you can’t change what you don’t measure; Harvard IAT gender-career test is a great place to start: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/user/agg/blindspot/indexgc.htm
· Ask. Talk to the women in your family, friend circles, and work about their stories about if they’ve ever personally experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly because of their gender. Their stories may surprise you, and if it makes you uncomfortable that’s perfectly fine — think about how uncomfortable these women were to be in this position.
· Reach. Ally with women in whatever capacity you have — don’t be afraid to sponsor a woman in your company who is talented and could gain from you recommending her to projects. Take on a mentee. Willingly share insights during networking events to women in your field trying to move up.
· Reflect. Unfortunately, women can be even harsher to each other in the workplace than other men. Some women, perceiving that they’re from a stigmatized, undervalued, and underrepresented group, will distance themselves from other women and have low levels of gender identification, tending to believe that recognizing the “first” or “only” female achievements to be biased and irrelevant, and that this social distancing is necessary to advance. However, studies have shown that women who highly identify with their gender respond to gender discrimination with a stronger desire to help other women. The Harvard IAT gender-career test is a great place to start for any woman: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/user/agg/blindspot/indexgc.htm
· Ask. Do not be afraid to create a professional sponsorship relationship within your company or industry. This will only help you do your job better and get a better job in the future. Women’s promotions and raises are highly dependent on sponsorship and external connections (source).
· Reach. Help other women — whether or not you personally like them (source). Ideally, sponsor another woman in your company or industry. No matter what your level of experience or time, be willing to share your story with other women who can gain from it.
It’s been 54 years since Kitty Genovese’s death. The most tragic part of her story was the fact that she had fought valiantly to stay alive and temporarily shook her assailant off, then lay injured on her doorstep, crying out for help. If one person had recognized that she had an emergency, took responsibility for saving her life, and believed that their call to police could make a difference, Kitty could still be alive today.
In much the same way, we cannot let the movement for women’s equality to stall on the threshold of progress — by recognizing the state of urgency for progress with the gender gap to again move forward, taking individual responsibility for its progress, and believing you have something worthwhile to contribute, you can make all the difference.
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