Page published on 26th October 2022
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On 11 October 2022, our Women in IP community organised a much-anticipated follow-up to their June 2022 “Mind the Gap” event. This one was a hybrid event, kindly hosted by Gowling WLG at their London offices and online.
The October event (details here) continued to explore the themes which emerged at the June one, looking in more detail at how we can help to close the so-called “authority gap”. The panel provided lots of useful tips, including: become an ally to women, avoid making assumptions, intervene against behaviour that exacerbates the authority gap, and recognise the issue of intersectionality.
This blog post, written by Susan Nelson (an intern for IP Inclusive), highlights the key points that were discussed at the event and offers even more tips on how to close the authority gap. A recording of the event is available here.
Our second “Mind the Gap!” event was Women in IP’s first in-person gathering since 2020. As such, it was great to see such a large turnout. For those who could not attend in person, there was the option to join the discussions via Zoom.
The event took the form of a panel discussion and there was time for questions from the audience at the end. Our panellists were Anna Elagina (Finance Director at Boult Wade Tennant), Gordon Harris (of Counsel, International IP Leadership at Gowling WLG), and James St Ville KC (IP barrister at 8 New Square). The panel was chaired by Kate Swaine, Co-Head of IP at Gowling WLG.
What is the authority gap?
Kate Swaine opened with a summary of the “authority gap” (the theme of Mary Ann Sieghart’s book The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it and the focus of both this and the June event). Sieghart defines the authority gap as a measure of how much more seriously we take men than women. In other words, many believe that a man knows what he is talking about unless it is proven otherwise, whereas it is the opposite for women – a woman must prove herself first.
The panellists then picked up where the first event finished, looking at how we can close this authority gap. They began by exploring the idea of allyship and discussed how being an ally to women is one way we can all help to close the authority gap. Being an ally involves supporting and encouraging women. Some examples of this were given. In meetings, for instance, women should be encouraged to speak more. This could be achieved by specifically asking for their thoughts on a particular issue. Similarly, more balanced meetings (with more women present) can encourage more women to share their views. It was acknowledged that women are more likely to speak up and contribute ideas during meetings if there are more women present.
It was also recognised that men should try to notice and recognise the authority gap at play. An example was given by one of the panel members. During a meeting, this panel member was challenged by a woman on a particular point. The panel member felt that this created some tension. However, afterwards they reflected that there might not have been the same tension if the challenge had come from a man. Being self-aware and critical of your own reactions, feelings and biases is what helps you to become a good ally.
Treating women appropriately in meetings
The panel then moved on to to consider how women are treated in a group setting. In particular, they discussed how avoiding inappropriate behaviour towards women during meetings is another way to close the authority gap. Inappropriate behaviour may include only using certain adjectives towards women, stating things that are not relevant to the point a woman is making, interrupting women, not enabling them to contribute ideas, or attributing their ideas to other attendees.
Various ideas were shared as to how women could be better treated in meetings:
- Do not necessarily fill the silence. Some people take time to gather their thoughts. In fact, women are often less likely to speak off the cuff. Giving women more time to speak can allow them time to gather their thoughts and summon the courage to contribute. It is vital that everyone in the meeting is included because this ensures diversity of opinion and ideas.
- If a woman is interrupted, at an appropriate time you could ask the woman to carry on where she left off. This is a non-confrontational way of highlighting that everyone’s views are valid.
- Women could actively choose to collaborate and support each other in meetings. For example, a woman could ask another woman who is present to share their thoughts on a particular issue.
- Call out or intervene when you believe behaviour is inappropriate.
- At the end of the meeting, you could ask generally whether anyone has something to add. Or this could be asked in a follow up email. Offering alternative ways to communicate can be effective.
To help close the authority gap, it is important that we all (whatever our gender) recognise our own biases. The panel agreed that it is OK to acknowledge that you have biases. In fact, this was viewed as being positive, since it is only by being self-aware that we can rectify these biases. One common bias relates to how senior people are. We may be too quick to judge the seniority of the people in the room. The panel stressed the importance of remembering that if someone has been invited to a meeting or discussion, then they will probably have something valid to say.
One panel member provided an example of an assumption at play in the workplace. In this case, a male colleague did not put forward one of his female colleagues to work on a particular project because she was pregnant. He assumed that she would not want the added stress and responsibility that the project would bring. In reality that was the opposite of what she wanted. She was left feeling side-lined, and it created tension between them. If this assumption had been avoided, the result would have been far more positive (since the decision would have been her choice). The panel made it clear that we should all be mindful that there is a person on the other end of our biases and assumptions.
Equally, it is important to remember that the authority gap can be further exacerbated when intersectionality comes into play. For example, disabled women tend to face more disadvantages than those who do not have a disability. The same applies to those who are from a minority ethnic background. We need to remember issues such as these when trying to close the authority gap.
Creating a more flexible organisational culture
Having a more flexible organisational culture is another way that we can help to close the authority gap. Many women have family commitments (rooted in the traditional idea that it is a woman’s role to look after the family). Organisations should seek to create a culture where it is acceptable for anyone to leave the workplace when they have family commitments to fulfil. There should be a recognition by organisations that people have lives outside of work. The panel mentioned that the pandemic did help in some ways towards this. Lockdown broke down some of the barriers surrounding availability and the panel stressed we must continue to embrace this as we emerge from the pandemic.
Other tips for closing the authority gap
The panel shared their final thoughts as to how the authority gap could be closed:
- Name the problem – recognise it exists.
- Engage in open conversation about the gender issues that exist within the workplace.
- Be mindful and pay close attention to what is going on around you (this will help you to call out any inappropriate behaviour).
- Find a mentor. This does not necessarily need to be in work. Mentors are great at giving you the strength and motivation to do what you want.
- Ensure that conversations surrounding parenting are centred around the idea that it is not only a woman’s role. Encourage people of all genders to take parental leave.
- Provide validation to women.
- Role play can be useful in certain situations. It enables you to find who you want to be rather than who society wants you to be.
- Historically at least, many roles and workspaces have been designed primarily with men in mind. Consider how they could be redesigned so they are suitable for people of all genders.
Want to know more?
The book The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart is what first inspired Women in IP and their allies to run these two events. We recommend reading it: see here.
If you want to keep discussing these or similar issues why not join our Women in IP community? They provide a safe space for women and their allies to share ideas and best practices and to network with fellow IP professionals.