29 Apr Equal seats at the table
“I felt hurt and left alone.” It’s an unusual comment for a president of the European Commission to make but it is one which perhaps illustrates just how far we have to go as a global society before we arrive at true equality. The comment from Ursula von der Leyen came after a meeting in Turkey at which Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and EU Council President Charles Michel took the only two chairs available.
As Mrs von der Leyen subsequently commented, as a leader she can speak up and make herself heard and there were cameras recording the incident. But she went on to say “we all know, thousands of similar incidents, most of them far more serious, go unobserved, nobody ever sees them, or hears about them, because there is no camera, because there is nobody paying attention. We have to make sure that these stories are told too.”
The challenge for every individual and every organisation is not just to ensure that those stories are heard but to work to ensure that those stories never happen. We may be reporting positive statistics about an increase in female or other representation at the top table of organisations. But what are we doing to ensure that across companies people have equal chances and equal measures of respect? Consciously or unconsciously do we allow bias to creep in; perhaps sidelining comments from those who are not ‘one of the crowd,’ or failing to consider people for key roles due to their gender, ethnicity, age or other criteria?
While conscious bias tends to become visible over time, unconscious bias can be equally damaging. That trip to the pub, which excludes those who don’t drink or who may have caring roles outside work. The office banter, which is uncomfortable for those who may be shy or not as socially adept and therefore never know how to join in. The annual appraisal which penalises those who may have worked equally hard but in a less visible role.
These are only a few examples and every company will have their own list but they can all lead to a feeling of exclusion and of difference. That’s not to say that trips to the pub or informal chats in the office should be banned. They can be valuable in helping to build teams. The trick for leaders is to be aware of the potential pitfalls and to take steps to ensure that people not only feel included but that the business is inclusive; that people are given equal chances to advance and be heard based on their own merits. In other words is time for leaders to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to earn a seat at the table.