We need to challenge the unfounded gender biases such as benevolent bias — the bias of kindness, where I choose to make a decision about your career without ever consulting you. It happens to men when they are making decisions about the careers of women but interestingly it also happens to women when they are making decisions about the careers of other women. This is because we carry the same unconscious programming, we carry effectively the same biases together and this particular one comes out in mysterious ways! The most obvious one is in maternity returners where we perhaps would make an assumption not to send that woman to an area on a project that would take her away from her family. Or not to offer her a project that would mean working late into the night, to assume that she will no longer be mobile because she has a family. Or the most deadly one — to make an assumption that she will most definitely have more time off than anyone else. Until we get to a place where we are making those same assumptions about men who have recently become parents, we are nowhere near being able to alter the assumptions about that stage of a woman’s career that can absolutely destroy her earning capability and so contribute to the gender pay gap.
As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Angela Peacock. Angela has spent the last 20 years of her career working across the global business sector — from Asia to North America, Europe and South Africa — developing and supporting companies and leaders with their corporate strategies and leadership development. During the last 10 years she and her team have specialized in creating the sorts of inclusive environments where everyone can be heard and excel. She is passionate about getting organizations to understand the link between the creation of inclusion, the achievement of tangible business results and the need to link it back to the people agenda. Angela has a strong reputation in the global inclusion arena and has worked with boards and C-suites across many firms from State Street to Microsoft, Fidelity to Accenture, Lloyds of London to the National Basketball Association. She is an inspiring speaker — using storytelling, hard facts and her history to ensure her messages hit home and are remembered long after the workshop has ended.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?
My career path has been a rather long and winding road — and one that speaks to both gender balance and socio-economic line crossing in a big way. I was born into a very poor family that had lived in state accommodation for generations. I was an illegitimate child in the 1960s and, at that time in the UK, most mothers left the “unmarried mothers home” without their child. Babies were easy to adopt, especially little white girls with dark curly hair! However, my mum was the only one who left with me firmly in her arms. That was a tough call for her at that time — there was no assistance from the state and her own mother definitely wasn’t keen on being seen with an illegitimate grandchild in the family. So my mother managed to arrange nursery care and worked. In fact, she also bought herself a car — which was incredibly unusual in the UK at that time — and put herself in the bracket of being one of the few women in our small town who drove, let alone owned their own car. I’m not saying times were easy but we had food on the table and I had that very early imprint of a female role model who got up every day, went to work and managed to run her life — and I guess that was the beginning of the back story.
I was raised to read books from an incredibly young age (probably some of them wholly unsuitable) and also to be able to speak to the older people in our town and the younger people just the same. I think that has stood me in incredibly good stead in the work that I do now, dealing with CEOs one minute and discovering what’s really going on with the workers on the shop floor the next. When I was six, my mother married into a family from the East End of London and suddenly we went from the countryside to live in a big city where things were incredibly different. I remember that was the first time I really felt like an outsider — I spoke differently, I knew academically I was streets ahead of most of the others in my class and, to make matters worse, the teacher picked me out as her special example so I was pretty soon bullied, which carried on for most of my school career. My family ‘knew their place’ — they were frightened of anything outside that and, as long as you did a little bit better than your parents, that was considered acceptable. But I always had the rebel in me.
I think through being bullied I learned to stand up for myself but did it with intellectual argument rather than physically fighting with anyone. I was also a great observer of who else was “othered” — viewed and treated as different — during my school years. Typically in the early 1970s the people who were othered were those of different races, people where English was their second language or anyone who was just downright different — allegedly like me. It wasn’t until high school that I really started to get annoyed about the gender imbalances — the subjects that we were allowed to study at school (I still can’t sew a button on and that was the only thing we were allowed to do when the boys were doing metalwork and woodwork) and being taught, albeit subliminally, to behave like a “good girl”. At that time I could enter any debate fairly eloquently and yet it was frowned upon, whereas the boys were allowed to make grandstand speeches and be strong in their opinions. Luckily that wasn’t true of every teacher. With most people who go on to achieve, there is usually a great teacher to be found in the background — and I had two who encouraged me and pushed me on.
However, by the end of school, the bullying had got the better of me and I left school completely unqualified and six months before the official school leaving age in the UK. The only jobs that were offered to me were simple ones and fairly low-level ones and I realised then that, if I wanted to make my mark, I would have to use my confidence to craft my career rather than my non-existent qualifications (something that is seemingly impossible to do these days). Luckily, I had what my father would have called the “gift of the gab” and I was hired by two publications to sell their advertising space over the phone. My ability to talk to anyone at any level and to explain things very clearly must have come to the fore because by 17 I was the best salesperson in the department. I very quickly got married, though, and fell into the regular pattern of building a home and having a child. I still think we fight with this at a corporate level — expectations you subconsciously absorb when you are young will reverberate throughout your life. With the exception of my mother, almost all the women I knew were homemakers and almost all of them were married young with children — and that was the path I followed. I managed to do that for 18 months! When I discovered a passion for arranging flowers and icing cakes, that took over for the next five years. I would create wedding bouquets (again with no qualifications), and wedding and birthday cakes — everything from the Taj Mahal in icing to a recreation of Winnie the Pooh in fondant.
And then at 33 a major change happened. I went on a “women returning to work” program and spent the whole time thinking “I can do this”. I took myself off on an adult retraining program and within six months had met my now business partner and was running team building programs for Sony — firstly in the UK and then throughout Europe. I still think it was my naivety that had me knocking on the door of the general managers of these plants asking them why — when they knew what the problems were — they were leaving their staff to feel the way they did and challenging them to fix those problems because in my simple world it seemed very easy to do.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
I guess my big break initially was when a TV programme was filming at a client’s site where we were running team-building programs, and they came and asked me some questions. This was broadcast to the whole of the UK — I was terribly impressed with myself at the time. The next week, when I attended a conference that the British government was running for “women in business in the Arab world”, as part of my biography I wrote that I had appeared on the Open University TV program. At the conference, I was approached by the organizer — one of their speakers had dropped out and he asked me if I would take the afternoon slot to talk about women in leadership. I remember hiding in the bathroom and frantically scribbling some notes on the back of a piece of paper before taking to the stage, only to find that the woman who had dropped out, and who I was replacing, was a famous sheikha from Dubai and that most of the women in the audience had in fact turned up to hear her speak on women and leadership. I did my best and, at the end of that session, I guess it must have been the refreshing direct approach but my partner and I were asked to go on a tour of the Arab world sponsored by our government and HSBC bank — and the rest, as they say, is history.
We soon moved into mainstream training by hiring some incredibly impressive consultants and trainers into our team. After 10 years of doing that and learning what drives businesses, learning what makes them tick, learning when businesses fail, learning how to motivate staff, learning how to move a culture and to change it and make it stick effectively and also seeing how not to do that, we were asked to begin the first part of our work in inclusion. We were running leadership programs for Cisco and one of the modules was on the “unconscious brain” and the effects it has on decisions we take. I will never forget the day that their head of learning asked me whether we could virtualize the program and whether we could scale it. I’m not sure if I really knew then what it would mean for our organization, but I agreed to both. We left, spent six fiery months ensuring we could do both, and we were off.
Having run that program, we were then asked by several other organizations if we could do the same thing for them. I still believe that it’s not just being “diversity and inclusion specialists” but the combination of being strategists, practical people, people who know how to move cultures forward that makes the difference in this — and, of course, maybe my humble beginnings mean that I have an insight into exactly how it feels to be “othered”. Although with all of this I have to acknowledge that if I had not been born a white woman in those circumstances, the chances are very strong that I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Some years ago, we were working with a global professional services firm and they had hired the Carre Theater in Amsterdam for their annual leadership conference. We’d been asked to bring our acting troupe to the theater and they were staging various sketches and scenarios in the foyer as the delegates arrived in order to demonstrate assumptions and bias that we hold. I arrived at the theater to prepare myself to give the keynote speech later on that morning and it suddenly struck me that I wanted to join in too. So I went off and, in my running gear, made myself look even more scruffy than usual, picked up a vacuum cleaner and started to vacuum around the feet of delegates — in many cases, much to their annoyance, including one woman who tapped me on the shoulder and actually asked me if I realized how very annoying I was being and said couldn’t I do my job once the paying customers had gone inside the auditorium? The whole thing was being filmed and we decided to try an experiment.
We filtered everyone through one of the doors to the auditorium and, still carrying the heavy vacuum cleaner on my arm, I held one of the doors open. Almost 500 delegates walked in past me — with not one smiling, not one offering to hold the door so that I could pass through and not one saying thank you. I went off, got changed, put my make-up on and my suit, and an hour later was on the stage giving my well-known keynote. I had lunch with the delegates and later that day did some active business planning with them. Still nothing… still no-one recognized me. At the close of the session, I once again went on the stage for closing remarks and I’d had the film crew speed up the videoing of the 500 entering the auditorium. We ran this at fast speed with people staring at the screen not really understanding why I was doing that as I began to speak these words: “Sometimes we have to consider who we ‘other’. Sometimes we have to consider who is worthy of our thanks and who is not. Sometimes we have to consider who we believe is less human than us.” Some people had realized by now but others were staring at me as though I had gone mad. When I pointed out that the janitor holding that door was the same woman they had listened to all day, you could have heard a pin drop in that auditorium.
I have done that hundreds of times since then. The most fun is when I actually get changed out of my running gear and into my suit on stage — quite a feat to do discreetly, I can tell you, but always with the same impact. It’s a session that both breaks my heart — in that I have to wonder if I would also walk past and not acknowledge somebody that I didn’t see as worthy — but also sends people off with a loud clanging gong of a message.
Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?
1. We are hiding the bias — behind most of the stated reasons for the pay gap is a group of people keen to preserve a status quo and a business environment that has served them well for years. We need to be explicit about the REAL reasons for the pay gap. The fact that two-thirds of the “privileged groups” in an organization believe that diversity initiatives have no business impact at all — and 60% believe they will be overlooked for their next promotion in favor of a diverse candidate — should not be a secret known only to supporters of diversity initiatives. Facts like this show what a permafrost exists in the management ranks of organizations. Leaders who say the right things but — when their bias comes calling fail to take action to support creating the environment that is needed for pay parity to exist — need to be both helped and “seriously encouraged” to do what needs to be done to move things forward. Part of the reason we have not managed to change things is we have not called out things like this before. We have to now — and loudly.
2. Given point one, we have to shout more loudly about the micro business case for gender balance in general — and draw the line between wage parity and attracting and retaining more females who make it to senior roles. However, grand statements have been around for years and make almost no difference to the permafrost layer of leaders making the decisions. Catch-all words like “innovation” and “matching our customers” are old hat and unlikely to engender anyone to change. Ask managers just what impact having a gender-balanced team environment will make to their business outcomes specifically. Move that conversation to one that highlights the need for an inclusive environment where difference is not tolerated but encouraged to flourish. Have them be specific about just what the impact of this will be on their own business outcomes. What product do they need to innovate? Which market to understand better? Create a culture where a pay gap of any sort will close.
3. Inclusion and diversity need to be defined as two very different things if we’re to successfully close the wage gap. Gender wage gap issues in terms of the “gender” and “gap” parts are measurable and are pure diversity elements. Creating an inclusive environment where everyone with the capability to succeed can do so — that is where the real work needs to be done in order to close the gap. All the rules, policies and process changes won’t work without it.
Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?
I can tell you what we are not doing — we are not fixing the women. There are many organizations out there running programs that aim to build women’s confidence to make them feel that they can compete with the men and even teach them negotiation skills. If that was going to work, these programs would have impacted the gender pay gap years ago because many of them have been running for 15 years in that way. We do run programs specifically for women, which might sound like a contradiction in terms, but those programs are absolutely geared towards them finding strength in their authenticity and a resilience that will last them through their career — so it’s about building the foundations for their career launch or their launch onto a board. Interestingly, very often on those programs when we run one of the exercises called “ready for the board” — where we take them through strategic development steps and have them present on what their strategic answers would be pertaining to their own organizations — what we hear from the women is “hell I already knew all of this but I would never have spoken this publicly”. It’s almost as if organizations think that top layer, that strategic decision making from executive committee or board, is some sort of dark art that’s a little bit mystical and a little bit hidden. But we absolutely do not aim to fix the women — in fact all our work is about fixing the culture of an organization to make it fit for purpose.
Although there are slight differences in terms of the interceptionality issues, we tend to see the same issues in every single country where we operate. When you see the same thing manifesting in the US that you see throughout Europe and in Asia, you have to strip that back and look at it from a deeper level. And in all of those areas and all of those countries, the overarching work we are doing is letting the genie out of the bottle. We are done with preaching to the choir, we are done with gently trying to encourage, we are actually creating online environments where leaders in organizations are being held to account for what they are doing to change the culture of their organization to one of inclusion — and that means they have to learn to feel more comfortable with people who would have made them feel uncomfortable in specific roles in the past.
So it is very much in the area of bias — but less about having them suddenly come on a workshop that has them “see the light” and recognize their own bias and far more about robust conversations happening in organizations that change the culture away from one that allows the bias to run unsaid and puts it into these other practical things that we need to do. We basically make them talk it out loud and then we ensure we use Thaler nudge theory to ensure that everything they are doing — every time they go to recruit, every time they go into a performance management meeting, every time they think about who they are going to put on a project or work allocation — they cannot even get to the paperwork or the process necessary to do that until they have been through a 30-second nudge. We are trying to interrupt what is a lifetime of thinking, a lifetime of heading towards one solution, and stop it in its tracks. Funnily enough, the organizations that we work with often say: “Are you trying to make me work with people who I haven’t got confidence in to do the job, people I don’t like?” My answer to that is always no — we want you to be able to learn to like more people. In other words, we want you to be more comfortable with more people who you believe are capable of doing the jobs you have on offer, rather than just sticking with the ones that your unconscious, you “instincts”, tell you and make you feel comfortable.
Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.
1. I would absolutely change the way we speak to our children. I think we are kind of getting there with girls but I really do think we need to look deeply at the way we speak to young boys and even the way we describe babies when they are in utero. If you think about it, the minute we know that we are carrying a girl, very often the bedroom gets decorated in a delightful soft pink and it’s all very fluffy and delicate with fairies and flowers and pretty and if it’s a boy then the bedroom is blue and it’s dinosaur themed with trucks or something that is tough and hard and macho. And even during pregnancy there is evidence from Harvard that says when a baby is kicking when you know it’s a girl then it’s having a delightful little dance and if you know it’s a boy then aaargh that’s a big kick — he’s going to be a soccer player and the difference is tangible. And that translates then to what we tell them throughout the early years of their lives. I think we’ve nearly got there now; most girls these days will be very happy to tell you they want to be an astronaut or a lawyer or a firefighter or even the next president but when you ask boys, they are still saying the same things as in the past. Boys in general haven’t yet been given permission to be sensitive, they haven’t been given permission to be the next nurse, rather than the doctor, to be the caregiver — and the assumptions we make that men don’t sew or do crafts or really use the creative side of their being, I think is really, really important. I have a poster at home that talks about the different ways that we talk to boys and girls, and my favorite quote on it is this one: “For every girl who throws out her E-Z-bake oven, there is a boy who wishes that he could find one”. I think that’s incredibly important. Right from the get go we need to be telling both genders that they can do anything they want to. We will not solve the bias that sits behind the gender pay gap if we can’t continue to raise — right from young children — individuals who have sweeping and absolutely not valid biases from one gender against the other.
2. We need to challenge the unfounded gender biases such as benevolent bias — the bias of kindness, where I choose to make a decision about your career without ever consulting you. It happens to men when they are making decisions about the careers of women but interestingly it also happens to women when they are making decisions about the careers of other women. This is because we carry the same unconscious programming, we carry effectively the same biases together and this particular one comes out in mysterious ways! The most obvious one is in maternity returners where we perhaps would make an assumption not to send that woman to an area on a project that would take her away from her family. Or not to offer her a project that would mean working late into the night, to assume that she will no longer be mobile because she has a family. Or the most deadly one — to make an assumption that she will most definitely have more time off than anyone else. Until we get to a place where we are making those same assumptions about men who have recently become parents, we are nowhere near being able to alter the assumptions about that stage of a woman’s career that can absolutely destroy her earning capability and so contribute to the gender pay gap. It’s interesting when you look at the background to benevolent bias and it does seem to stem from our early years — what we saw, whether our mothers worked or not, and indeed the deep programming that a lot of people like me over 50 got from Disney cartoons and things like “I dream of Jeannie” — where, despite the fact the protagonist is a bright, independent woman, she knows she has got to brush her hair, put the sexy clothes on and stay at home and look after the family and play the little wife. Her real work (in this case as a witch!) is hidden in case it diminishes “her man”. We carry these biases with us constantly and they come out in mysterious ways.
3. The other area of gender bias that I think we should be talking about a lot more broadly is intersectional bias. We know that the IWPRS report on sex and race discrimination in combination in the US states quite clearly that we know that discrimination in pay, hiring and promotions has a significant impact on all of the wage gaps that we are seeing. But we also know that very specifically for Hispanic women and African American women the gap is even bigger. When we look at intersectional bias, it’s an interesting thing to see. We sometimes make assumptions when we hear the word bias, that it’s about one specific thing — “I have a bias about women in the workplace.” I don’t believe that it is that. When organizations hire at graduate level, very often it is 50/50. This decreases the higher they climb –intersectional bias comes into play at higher levels. So I can see a woman doing an associate role in a law firm but I can’t actually envisage her being a partner. The bias comes in when we sit in front of a promotion panel and goes back to our early programming of “what a leader looks like”.
4. As a society, we need to ensure people are incentivized to drive the inclusion change that will lead to the pay gap closing. So ALL managers, for example, should be made accountable for driving the change. Targets around promoting greater numbers of females or insisting on a more balanced slate when recruiting are essential. But more essential still is offering a dynamic and measurable system that is linked to performance — where managers HAVE to have made some practical things happen in order to drive the right environment for ALL people to flourish. We need to start aligning inclusion to the things that matter to people — salary, bonus and promotions.
5. In some US states — including California and Massachusetts — employers are not allowed to ask job applicants how much they previously earned. Similar measures are under consideration in a number of other states. These laws to stop “previous salary” questions can help break the cycle of gender pay disparity by removing the link between historic inequalities and pay negotiations. In 2017, when the law was announced in New York, the chair of the NYC Commission on Human Rights, Carmelyn P Malalis, said it was designed to “break the cycle of income inequality” and put an end to women and people of color being “held back by their current or previous salary”.
It’s interesting that we still shy away in general from conversations about wages. Perhaps if we weren’t so polite, we would have women asking men about what they earn and, better still, men asking women — and supporting them to take it up with their employer. Now that would be something!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think in a small way I have already started the movement that I’d like to see really take off — under #likemorepeople. It basically works on the basis of acknowledging the assumptions we make about another human. We decide on them just by how they look, sound, the job they are doing, the clothes they wear, the color of their skin, etc. We should stop and ask ourselves two very specific questions — what could we know and what should we know? This gives us a whole plethora of things that we could ask another human being to understand more about them.
I very much believe in reaching humans one by one, changing my mind a little bit every single day, so a movement that gave structure to that in some way would be incredibly powerful. One of the things that we ask the delegates on our programs to do — and that I hold true to myself — is each new year coming up with three questions. Nothing to do with asking someone about their race or where they were born but simple questions where we can meet them halfway. Questions like: What do you usually eat for breakfast? What’s your favorite ice cream? (food is always a good one) What newspaper do you take? What was the most inspiring book you have ever read? What did you want to be when you grew up? What’s the animal that you have owned that you are most close to? Are you a town person? Choosing three every year that you ask strangers is a good one. I have had some amazing conversations with taxi drivers the world over, just by applying that rule — and have discovered authors of seriously impressive books on war history, mature students whose past as refugees has been filled with horror and pain, and inspirational CEOs who are taking a less fervent route to earning a living. All of these things open my eyes and enable me to do as the hashtag says and grow my brilliant brain, diversify my thought processes, increase the neural pathways in my brain and learn to #like more people!!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Usually my answer to that is: “Don’t judge someone because they sin differently from you”. It’s one lesson I live by, accepting that no-one is perfect and that we all have faults and foibles — that we get it wrong. This, though, means living in vulnerability and practicing humility. When I first began this work, I really believed that it was a simple equation — there were good and bad people in the world. Good people did all the good things to drive diversity forward in organizations and bad people did all the things that cause people of difference to have issues making their way in the world. However, very soon I saw layers of complexity around this. Very often the people who inadvertently stand in the way are doing so because of a fear — a fear of change, a fear of difference. We are weird human beings; at one level we seek ultimate connection and at another level we look at a human being and very quickly work out whether they are “comfort tribe” or not. But I also recognize that what I did was to judge people’s life decisions as a representation of how effective they would be in the workplace. I soon came to the conclusion that I am supremely imperfect in every way and that actually that quote which — when I use it on social media gets more hits than almost anything else — is one that we should live by.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — an incredible woman putting people and their wellbeing and happiness at the center of her government’s decisions. Her pledge that her country will be one where “success is measured not only by the nation’s GDP but by better lives lived by its people” really strikes a chord. And the way she reacted to the terrible Christchurch mosque shootings by reaching out to people at the scene both physically and mentally — just being there to share their pain — was an example to leaders around the world. She behaved in a way I have never seen a prime minister anywhere do before. To my mind, she is the epitome of inclusion.
Thank you for all of these great insights!