Don't fake it, we're making it

Let's stop teaching that the solution to inequality is to deny our instincts and numb our emotional intelligence, says BBH London's strategy partner.

At an International Women’s Day panel last year, a creative graduate asked how to negotiate in an interview. A C-suite speaker in her mid-40s answered: "Ask them what your male colleagues make in the interview, then tell them to match it. They can like it or lump it frankly!"

The graduate, clearly frustrated, looked like she wanted to reply as the microphone floated away. This advice reminds me of Cindy Gallop’s call to arms: "Women, if they don’t pay you what you deserve, then leave." Both are well intentioned, but both forget that leaving is the privilege of people who can afford to – not people paying rent, building their careers and reputations.

Recently when mentoring younger women in our industry, I’ve been struck by how painful – even crippling – their heightened awareness of their gender disadvantage can be. These women know the issues they face as women, they want to do right by themselves, but they struggle to act on this kind of advice and constantly worry they’re letting themselves down.

‘Fight harder’

…should I have been more bullish in that pay meeting?

‘Lean in’

…am I asserting myself enough?

‘Fake it until you make it’

…would a man do this better?

No one is at their best when they are being fake. So please, let’s stop teaching that the solution to inequality is to deny our instincts and numb our emotional intelligence. Treating an interviewer or boss with suspicion creates tension. And unnecessary tension could be a greater disadvantage than gender. People like to feel liked, and they like to feel generous. Give them the opportunity to do the right thing, and they might. Assume that they won’t, and they are more likely not to.

Last week WPP published its gender pay gap report, a month earlier than the April deadline for all companies of over 250 people. The women I’m mentoring are not from WPP agencies, but in the absence of other data, let’s use WPP as a proxy. These women would be part of the 55% female lowest paid quartile. But in their 20s, they may not be paid significantly differently from their male counterparts. In 2015, the press association published data showing that on average women’s base salaries were higher than men’s in their 20s – a statistic that dramatically reverses in their 30s. Resolution Foundation’s 2017 data reported just a 5% difference between gender pay for those in their 20s using mean and median averages (a far more more robust comparison and the same one used by the UK government).

Any difference is not good enough. But recognising the nuance in the statistics can provide deeper understanding of the issues at different levels. It also takes the pressure off individual women at the start of their careers to fix the pay gap one pay review at a time. In 2018 the issue will be forced at a higher level, targets will be published, and individuals will be incentivised to promote and pay women fairly. This will not happen overnight, but I do believe it will happen.

So this International Women’s day, let’s do away with advice that assumes the patriarchy is sitting in the boardroom, gleefully rubbing their hands together as they write their 2020 anti-women strategy. Instead, let’s imagine that boardrooms around the country are filled with men and women (sadly still a lot more men) planning some radical changes that they cannot fake.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Elle Graham-Dixon is a strategy partner at Bartle Bogle Hegarty London

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