The extreme sport of getting to equal

Sept 16 2020 • 3 min read • Career Development

I have been reflecting on how gender equality in the workplace can be experienced as an ‘extreme sport’ by most women. This had me thinking about what it will take to create a critical mass of female talent to get through the finish line whilst staying “fit” and operating at peak performance.

In discussions with peers and other women at different levels, what is mentioned repeatedly is the sheer exhaustion of keeping up with performing ones mandate, whilst navigating the structural biases and investment gaps on development and support. It is evident that most challenges faced by women in the work place are not related to their technical abilities, commonly referred to as primary competencies.

But rather, the ability to navigate an environment rife with structural biases, while having to remain at the top of one’s game. Black women, especially, face the double-edged sword of operating at the intersectionality of biases, racism and gender discrimination. For those striving to close the gender gap, getting to equal can seem like an extreme sport.

Working in a demanding corporate role, I had a profound experience with a coach who followed an unorthodox approach, going the opposite direction of the many coaches I had experienced in my career. She focused solely on my ‘secondary competencies’ to drive successful outcomes. A natural expectation of mine, was for our journey to focus on the work-bound dynamics that I found myself challenged with, however, on the contrary, she prioritised my emotional, spiritual and physical needs, giving them the same importance, if not more.

The HBR suggests that the problem with most corporate approaches to leadership development is that they deal with people only from the neck up, connecting high performance primarily with cognitive capacity. In recent years, there has been a growing focus on the relationship between emotional intelligence and high performance. In addition, a few theorists have gone as far as addressing the spiritual dimension, highlighting how deeper values and a sense of purpose influences performance. A successful approach to sustained high performance, must pull together all of these elements and consider the person as a whole.

Getting fit and staying the course for peak performance

Drawing parallels to athletes, the concept of creating Corporate Athletes offers an opportunity for organisations to re-imagine how they can approach supporting the growth of their female talent. In this instance, the fundamental shift lies in an organisation’s ability to place concerted effort on building what are considered ‘secondary competencies’ such as endurance, strength, resilience, agility and focus instead of an emphasis on technical abilities alone. At the crux of this perspective is our view that in supporting women to stay the course, applying similar developmental techniques and offerings afforded to world-class athletes, could see a change in pace in closing the gender gap. This is an opportunity to drive real engagement and unlock ‘trapped talent’.

One can argue that these ‘secondary competencies’ are even more important at this moment in history, with the heightened pressure on employees given the exponential change currently taking place across all industries. Ways of working have significantly changed, with a negative knock-on impact on women. Emerging evidence from the UFM Secretariat, suggests that women’s economic and productive lives will be affected disproportionately and differently from those of men. Such impacts risk rolling back the already fragile gains made in female labour force participation.

In rethinking how organisations design workplace programmes, lessons from athletes become extremely relevant. The work of supporting women to reach their peak performance and to break barriers will require a different approach. In the same way that a coach tailors a programme to suit the needs of their athlete, professional development should look to design programmes that address building of the whole self.

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