Small Actions, Big Impact: How to Be an Ally at Work and Why it Matters
Our latest thinking on allyship highlights four questions for reflection to think critically about day-to-day ally actions that can bring about long-lasting cultural change.
Because it can be both unconscious and pervasive, bias is difficult to tackle. But the leader of BCG’s Women@BCG initiative in North America, Nan DasGupta, explores how businesses can revamp processes, recruiting, messaging—and the day-to-day experience of work.
Nan DasGupta played soccer in her youth and worked as an engineer at GE early in her career, so she has firsthand experience breaking into male-dominated realms. DasGupta, BCG people and organization expert and Women@BCG leader, talks about the difficulties in breaking down bias at work, how bias prevents men from assuming more caregiving responsibilities, the importance of role models, and why nobody wants to talk about menopause.
Nan DasGupta leads Boston Consulting Group's People & Organization practice in Canada, is the People Chair for BCG Canada, and lead the Women@BCG Initiative in North America. She is one of the leaders of BCG’s Centre for Canada’s Future. She is one of the firm’s experts in the topics of customer experience and women in business—both in terms of inclusion in the workforce and targeting women as customers.
GEORGIE FROST: Every company wants to unlock more value and growth, but how much bias is being allowed to creep in? Biases across your business, but especially from leadership in the recruiting process, can seriously stunt those aims. Acknowledge and compensate for them, boost your business, or ignore them and risk letting competitors steal a march on you. I'm Georgie Frost, and this is "The So What from BCG."
NAN DASGUPTA: Bias is everywhere, and it's everything that might seem small. And then it's big bias. It's unconscious bias, and then it's pervasive systemic bias that's been built into what we do.
GEORGIE: Today, I'm joined by Nan DasGupta, a lead in BCG's People & Organization practice, and an expert in people and organizational strategy.
NAN: Oftentimes, you have a direction in mind. You want to achieve certain outcomes. But the real question is how do we get there? Gender equity and inclusivity is one of those big areas where, actually, we know we need to do better, but we simply don't know how. It seems a little bit too big of a problem. So companies are looking for, we are all looking for, ways to move the needle and actually make progress on that really good ambition.
GEORGIE: Don't worry, Nan, we're going to solve this in the next 20 minutes, aren't we?
GEORGIE: Let's start with unconscious bias. How big an issue is it in the workplace and how do you understand it?
NAN: Well, I think bias is a big term, and it's pervasive. I mean, it's certainly in the business context, in the corporate environment that we work in, bias is everywhere. And it's everything that might seem small, and then it's big bias. It's unconscious bias, and then it's actually fairly pervasive, systemic bias that's been built into what we do. And if I were to describe, Georgie, how I think about it, I mean, fundamentally, this may be a provocative way to say it, but our business world, our context, was made by men for men, and it works for men.
GEORGIE: How? I like provocative, and that's OK, but it's a sentiment that we hear quite a lot, and I think it needs some qualification. What is the evidence of that and how is it manifesting itself?
NAN: Well, I think the evidence in that is how we make decisions in the context of recruiting people into our talent pools.
GEORGIE: While we will have unconscious bias of some sort, to varying degrees, that individual bias can filter through a company, from a leadership level, to become that systemic bias that you spoke about.
NAN: I agree. I agree. And I'll give you a couple of examples where I see this at play.
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GEORGIE: Are we not in danger here of putting women in a box? Should the emphasis be less on encouraging companies to perhaps accommodate these more, quote-unquote, "traditionally female" ways of working? And more on the men themselves, getting men to want to, to take up some of those caregiving roles?
NAN: For sure. I think that's why it's important that we focus on the act and the work of caregiving and not just the act of making the workplace equitable for women. Honestly, that is a bias that impacts men in a very dramatic way as well. I think, I believe, I know, there are many men in this day and age that actually get tremendous purpose, reward, satisfaction, joy out of caregiving. And yet biases prevent them from really dedicating themselves more fully to that role in their family, whatever their family might look like. So yes, we have to break that stereotype that caregiver equals women. It does so happen, though, that in today's day and age, in most societies, women are carrying the massive load of caregiving, if you will, more so than men. So that is the way it is today. And that's why that bias against caregiving, the fact that we don't recognize caregiving as valuable, we often don't pay for it, or we underpay for it. All of those biases are impacting women in a very, very dramatic way today.
GEORGIE: Actually, this can be a lot smaller, a lot more pervasive in the way that people think about the way that women react to certain things. There's a famous chef here in Britain who has made a comment about why he prefers to work with men, because they deal with pressure better, because women are too emotional. A famous scientist once said, "One of the problems with women in the lab is you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, or they cry." Right, those are two examples of very stereotypical ideas of women being emotional. My first question would be, what is the damage of that? And two, what's wrong with emotions?
NAN: I think that's the right question, right? So of course we have so many stereotypes, and those examples are excellent ones. I'm not saying that there are no differences between men and women or between people in general. We have so many differences between us. The problem is how we've been ingrained and trained and systemically biased ourselves to thinking emotion is bad, right?
GEORGIE: I'm curious, you and I both come from backgrounds in industries that are heavily male dominated. Me, before finance, which is heavily male dominated, I was in sport, and you in engineering. How did we manage? Was there something that we can do better or differently, or did the rules not apply to us? Or did they, we just didn't realize? Saying that, I've got lots of examples of sexism that I could talk to you about, but this is only a 20-minute podcast.
NAN: We'll do that another time, Georgie. You know what, Georgie, I don't know about you, but for me, as I grew up loving science, loving sports, participating in sports, it actually never occurred to me this was unusual or I shouldn't. It just didn't occur to me. And I credit my parents. Absolutely I credit my parents. At no point in time did they ever reflect to me that, "Hey, wait a minute. That's a weird path. Don't do that." They weren't thrilled that I was playing soccer, because I was injured a lot, but it wasn't because I was a girl. I think somehow the truer you are to yourself and have the confidence, that self-expression is valued, the more you're able to sort of filter out some of how others are perceiving you in that field. But I'm not trying to diminish the impact of being the lonely only or always the minority. You do feel it. It does take lot of resilience and resolve just to say, "You know what? That doesn't really matter. I know what I bring to this party."
GEORGIE: That's made me think of two things. One, do you think that we, to a degree, internalize that? Some of the comments that are made: "you're emotional," "perhaps women shouldn't be in sport." It's already within us. We've just for some reason chosen to ignore it. But also the importance of role models, because my parents played a very important role in me deciding that I could go into sport or I could do anything I want to. Because, well, my mom was always the main breadwinner. She was always the one out at work. And so that's the role model I had growing up. How important are role models in business?
NAN: Incredibly important, in my opinion, I mean we hear all the time, and I certainly felt this way, moving up through the ranks in my corporate career that it's very helpful to look ahead and say, "You know what? I can see myself being that person. I can see myself following that success pattern." And it's troubling when you look ahead, and there's no one that you can relate to. You just feel like you have to forge a path. You have to blaze a trail. You have to prove to everyone that you can do it. So role models are very important, and we're stuck in a numbers game right now where we don't have enough role models. So there's an additional ask and tax and burden on those that we have to really make sure that they are able to have the impact on all those following them.
GEORGIE: How do you solve that problem in a business context?
NAN: Well, ultimately,
Leaders that show authenticity, reflect that they are human, have empathy, and are not afraid to express emotion at the right time are very effective leaders.
GEORGIE: Now how much can and, indeed, should we force change? Because on many levels, women are smashing it. I mean, girls in the UK are doing better in school than the boys. In the US, women reportedly make up almost 60% of all college students. I only need to look at my own old profession, sports journalism, and see how far that's come. Shouldn't we just wait? I think there's an argument that says, "Look, it's going to happen anyway, and actually we should pat ourselves on the back for the speed of that change and where we are now."
NAN: Heck no, as my daughter would say. Heck no, no. I mean, look, I don't feel like we're smashing it. Look at the representation alone of women, the CEO ranks, and the board tables, the important decision-making tables in politics. We are dramatically underrepresented. And that doesn't make sense. That's not right. I mean, with all due respect, as a society, as a human race, I don't think we're crushing it. I don't think we're crushing it. We have a lot of things that we can do better on. And I have to believe that giving other voices a greater chance to weigh in on how we do things, on how we lead, on how we drive society is going to make us better as a race, as a human kind, as a planet. We have to keep reminding ourselves that, you know what? We don't have equality in the workforce, certainly, in society as well, in many societies. And yes, we do have to push that conversation.
GEORGIE: To go back to the unconscious bias conversation we were having before. There's obviously unconscious bias with leaders and how that filters down into a company. Of course it does. But what about, I speak as women here, our own unconscious biases, perhaps toward ourselves, our own ambitions. Is there something that we could do as women to put ourselves in better positions that we could feel more comfortable in the workplace?
NAN: Yeah, I think first of all, unconscious bias is in everyone.
GEORGIE: I want to ask you, because actually it's something I've been focusing on a lot at work, about menopause. Seems a strange start to a conversation, but I think it shouldn't be. I think it should be a conversation that we all have. There's some research in the UK from our trade unions saying that one in four women have considered leaving their job due to symptoms of menopause. And yet only 19% of businesses say they have any policy toward menopause in place. This is something that is affecting 13 million women in the UK. And it is something that doesn't seem to be considered by businesses. Why is that?
NAN: Because nobody wants to talk about menopause, Georgie, let's face it. I think it's a great question, right? And it is such an interesting point that menopause occurs in a woman's stage of life where they're probably at that very senior stage of their career where they might be in consideration for something bigger, where they are asking themselves, "Do I really want something bigger? Because right now I'm not feeling it." It happens at a very, very particular point in a typical career life stage. And nobody wants to have that conversation, right? Nobody really wants to talk about it.
GEORGIE: But why is that? I mean, technically, menopause is just one day, but perimenopause can last over a decade. It can affect women in their late 30s, 40s, 50s. These are key periods for women building a career and trying to reach the top. And I'm wondering if the reason that it's not talked about or considered in company policies goes back to that idea that you were talking about right at the start of the podcast of the business environment being created by men for men. Can, should, businesses do better here?
NAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. But to be honest, because there are so few women in those positions that might be asking the questions that you're asking, Georgie, it doesn't get brought up, right? It does not get brought up. But it should be, it should be. And honestly,
GEORGIE: Exactly right. I mentioned menopause much as we mentioned caregiving, having children, taking career breaks, all things that that affect women, largely. If you were to talk to, as you do, you go into businesses regularly to discuss these sorts of things, where do you start as a business leader?
NAN: Well, to me, the starting point is always when you look at representation, when you look at just the raw numbers: Is that right? Or is that wrong? And you have to fundamentally believe that we have to change it, right? We actually aspire to more balance and complete balance, complete equality, if you will. Every part of the organization. That has to be the aspiration. I think as long as you think that, "OK, well, this industry is always going to be skewed this way, or it's always going to be challenging for a woman to devote herself to her career the way men do." As long as you keep those beliefs at the back of your mind, I think we're stalled. We're stalled. So I think that's the start. So the belief and just the general acceptance that there's got to be a different normal is the starting place. Then I think it's systematically looking at all of the processes that we have in place, all the practices that we have in place to grow our talent and our organizations. Everything from who are we recruiting? Where are we recruiting them from? What is our message to them? What are our belief systems about? What "fit" means? What experience you need to have. Being willing to challenge that with the overarching North Star in mind that, you know what? It ought to be equitable in the end because that's actually what normal should be.
GEORGIE: Do you believe in targets?
NAN: I believe in ambitions and goals. I think quotas and targets are dangerous if applied in too crude a fashion, right? I think what's important is setting an ambition that is a good ambition, a bold ambition, and then really keeping yourselves accountable to making progress and doing the right things to drive that progress.
GEORGIE: What if it's a choice? What if women want to get to an age and have children and leave the workplace and not have those sort of high-pressure jobs? And what if that's what, not all, of course not all, but what can you do then as a company, if you're trying to not necessarily fill targets but certainly have a wider diversity of thought?
NAN: I think these are all individual characteristics, choices, preferences, priorities, and values. So absolutely there will be women, and I would argue there will be men, who would actually prefer to devote their lives to their children, for example, who would like to step out of work at an earlier age. Absolutely. I think at the moment, the forces out there are making those predominantly choices that women feel they have to make because they don't really see a good path outside of that choice spectrum.
GEORGIE: Is there an argument though that, yes, to a degree, you could say that the way that industries and work are structured in businesses is not conducive perhaps to women wanting to push themselves to leadership roles, but could that also just be society? Aren't businesses just playing a role, which is very difficult to change when society has those norms and expectations?
NAN: Well, I think, obviously, there's a big societal question here, and societally, we need to change and make progress. But I disagree with business's role is small. Actually I think business's role is huge. And if not business, then who? If businesses aren't actually declaring that, "Look, we actually aspire to something better. We know we will be a better company. We'll be more innovative, we'll drive better results. We'll be a better home for the best talents if we are more inclusive. We know this and therefore we will work on that and we will do better. And we will actually move the needle." If companies don't do that, oh my gosh, this is going to be so slow, right? Society moves slow. I mean, absolutely parents play a role, institutions play a role, governments play a role. Absolutely. And a lot of the pressures and the stereotypes and the biases are really driven by societal factors. But every company can control their culture.
GEORGIE: Nan, thank you so much for joining me. An absolute pleasure. And thank you for listening. We'd love to know your thoughts. To get in contact, leave us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you like this podcast, why not hit subscribe and leave a rating wherever you found us. It helps other people find us too.
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