What women’s Olympic triumphs can teach the world of business

Following the shining example set by Rio 2016, UK plc would do well to take a cue from the meritocracy of athletics and bring more women to the fore

What women’s Olympic triumphs can teach the world of business

What an Olympics that was. We were treated to a stellar performance from team GB on the world stage and the promise of more greatness to come from a host of athletes at the top of their game. But it was a shame that, in the midst of so many triumphs, instances of casual sexism crept into some of the media coverage. Whether from TV commentators or social media users, it can feel as though no feat by a female athlete is great enough to stand unqualified by her age, appearance or marital status.

To pick just one illustration of this, when the Chicago Tribune reported on Corey Cogdell’s bronze medal win in women’s trap shooting, it referred to her a “the wife of [Chicago] Bears’ lineman Mitch Unrein”. While she is indeed a wife, Cogdell is also a US medalist and an accomplished sportswoman in her own right — but that detail appeared secondary to her husband’s job.

While this sort of journalism can feel painfully 1950s, it’s heartening to see such extensive coverage of these gaffes by viewers and journalists alike who have been quick to pick up on the media’s unconscious bias. The sheer volume of positive news surrounding the performance of female athletes at Rio is also very welcome. From Laura Trott’s storming medal run in the velodrome to the continued dominance of Simone Biles in gymnastics, female athletes are doing incredible things to inspire future generations.

And that influence isn’t limited to fellow athletes: entrepreneurs can easily draw parallels between sport and business. Both arenas can be dramatic, unpredictable and very public, while success often comes to people who are committed and work hard. The greatest appeal for me is that both sport and business – at their best – are truly meritocratic. That’s why I hope business leaders cheering on the athletes from the stands or sofas will reflect on what propelled these stars to the Olympic stage in the first place.

Consider the journey that many athletes have taken to sprint around the Maracanã Stadium or race down the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon – it’s likely taken years of effort combined with the support of their coaches, peers, and, ultimately, their countries. Their triumphs are fuelled by their own ambition and by resources provided by a network of groups and individuals with a stake in their achievement.

When it comes to cultivating the best talent in business, I believe the same principles apply. However, I see people who are very ambitious yet don’t have the kind of support from their peers, leaders and companies that will propel them to the roles they deserve — even though their success would certainly benefit those concerned.

Thankfully, we’re starting to see some rather impressive projects emerging across industries to address this. First up, I’m happy to see action in the creative industry in the shape of Creative Equals. The initiative aims to provide more pathways to success for female creatives by training, sponsoring and championing female creative talent in agencies all the way to the top. The process tackles issues female creatives face, from under-representation at the hiring stage to difficulties in gaining the skills and tools they need to take on leadership roles.

The tech industry is also making strides to alter its predominantly male workforce with a new initiative called the Tech Talent Charter: a set of pledges aimed at increasing the number of women and under-represented groups working in tech. Companies can commit to its pledges, which include interviewing at least one woman for each vacant position and publishing the diversity profile of employees. 

While I’m no fan of quotas, this is a bit different. It takes its inspiration from the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which stipulates that minorities should be interviewed for coaching jobs. Ensuring more women get in front of interview panels doesn’t mean anyone gets appointed out of tokenism – it just means that talented women in tech will at least get a chance to show off their very real aptitude for the job. It’s one way that employers can make an effort to counter the unconscious bias that results in white men recruiting people like them.

Unconscious bias training is also something that an increasing number of companies, including Nestlé and Google, are bringing into their management training programmes. The value in this is the experiential exercises that often show people how we can all be biased – however inclusive we may believe ourselves to be.

Encouraging the nation’s middle managers to be a little more reflective about how they view the world could just be the key to reducing this country’s tolerance of casual sexism. And in the process, it could mean that boards of directors will get inputs from a much more diverse set of participants.

Frances Dickens
Frances Dickens

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