Women transforming systems

Woman group working on transforming systems

“We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored” Sheryl Sandberg

I love that feeling when you emerge from working with other people re-energised, revitalized and thinking about things really differently. Those light bulb moments of taking the time to be present, listen and just be – intentionally listening to your system and the system around you. This was how I felt as I stepped out of (but not away from) the newly created community of women I worked with most recently – all curious to know more and hungry for change. You know when you’ve found your tribe and can start creating change from a place of psychological safety, compassion and innovation. This is not easy, but then things that are worth it never are. Yet this can be developed as a practice, as a way of working, and as a way of being. Understanding who we are, what we bring to the table, where our power lies and how we can use these different colours and strings to weave a tapestry is one of the most rewarding – albeit exhausting! – activities, but it’s where the magic lies and where we can really start leading from the inside out.

 Lead from your best self: breaking the bias

I will never forget what it feels like to not fit in – that horrible feeling of the first day of school, not knowing anyone, acutely aware of how different you feel and how uncomfortable it is. For many, it might be a one-off feeling but for others, it is a way of life. Consciously wearing a mask that doesn’t fit leads to internalising the narratives that ‘I would be better if I did this, did that, looked like this, had gone to this business school, etc.’. This is of course perpetuated by the system. We spend so much time fitting in, trying to put a square peg in a round hole because that’s the way we should be. We hear so much about ‘bringing your whole self to work’ but I like to think of bringing my best self to work, although this is often an uphill battle, particularly for women, who are trying to fit in to an environment that wasn’t made for them and doesn’t accommodate their needs. However, this understanding is also a great opportunity to think differently and enact positive change, even though it won’t happen overnight.

We can also think about it from the slightly different standpoint of self-awareness, and how it represents the musician’s ability to attend to their inner state and physiology. Are they playing a short, intense first movement or a whole symphony? How are they breathing, how are they regulating their heart rate and emotions, and how tired are they? Are they listening to their body, hands, head and heart? Systems thinking and having the awareness of this holistic skill is the capacity to take in external and environmental conditions. Are they playing in a huge concert hall, in a small church, outside in a town square or in their living room for family and friends (which can sometimes be more nerve-wracking!)? What acoustics, temperatures, moods or challenges must be taken into account? Can the musician take in all these different elements at the same time and adjust their playing and tempo accordingly – according to what is happening inside and outside the orchestra? If so, then we are ready to enact systemic change.

Working with female leaders I often hear stories and anecdotes of what they should/could do to be better and get to the top, to fit in with the assumptions of a corporate culture, and indeed I have many of my own. It is however time to bust these myths and look at how we can change the system into one where both women and men can thrive. Neuroscience plays a large part in understanding how to face change, of any kind. We are wired for certainty, safety and autonomy – this is our ‘go to’ combination. Daniel Kahneman’s model of fast and slow thinking shows that two different systems influence our brains and their impact on decision-making, perception and choice. The brain uses short-cuts to navigate an incredible amount of information, which leads us to make snap decisions about who we prefer, what we prefer and who/what we avoid. System 1 thinking is fast, immediate, intuitive and unconscious thought. This is the case for most everyday activities (like driving, talking, cleaning, etc.). System 2 thinking is slow, calculating, conscious and more intentional thought. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. In the same vein, Daniel talks about “our unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance” and the way we can become rooted automatically in our preferences and prejudices – our unconscious ‘biases’. As such, unconscious bias is the #1 contributor to a homogenous work environment and sameness thinking and thus a disabler of diversity, an enemy of innovation and a blocker to creating change. If we stay locked into our ways of thinking, assumptions and biases, how can we expect to reframe things successfully enough to move on? This is one of the most frequent topics I deal with in my work on inclusive leadership, team culture, agile ways of working and human systems.  

I am everyone can think of the last time we said ‘yes, that’s just the way I am’ or ‘yes, he/she always does that, it’s just the way they are’ or ‘I can’t, the system doesn’t work like that’. We are describing habitual behavioural patterns, conscious or unconscious, that keep us and our systems exactly where they are. These patterns run our internal narratives and keep us in our own perception of what is and isn’t true, in our assumptions and beliefs (self-limiting or otherwise). These patterns are part of our ‘coping system’ and are based on our safety mechanisms to keep us where we are – but the system that got us here won’t get us there. We need to step into the uncomfortable space of experiential learning and break our patterns to change the narrative. Imagine what could happen if we intentionally decided to stay there and look beyond these habitual patterns, challenge the status quo of the system, step over our assumptions and look for different ideas of how to create equity in the system. To lead from our ‘best self’ we need to go inside and do this work, define who we are and why we are here: what impact do we want to have and how do we want to show up consistently and be courageously competent?

Organisations and leaders often invest a lot of money in unconscious bias training to solve ‘unconscious bias’, and then they stop. Unfortunately this is where the work starts – for everyone. Looking at our own patterns and assumptions will allow us to start unlearning what we’ve learnt about a certain subject or situation and allow us to see our internal system differently. Consequently we can then interact with the situation differently because we’re conscious that we have these biases and thought processes. So what stories are you currently telling yourself, and at what cost? What assumptions do you need to reframe or challenge?

Organisations also spend a lot of time and money on trying to ‘fix the women’ and the women buy into this narrative. Again, this is where the work starts – we need to take a systemic view and look at the whole landscape, not just the women. What new perspectives does your system need to see to be able to create more inclusive leadership? What would it take to create a more level playing field in your organisational culture?

Speak up boldly

“It took me a long time to find my voice – now I’ve found it I’m not going to be silent.” Madeline Albright

 Speaking up takes courage and grounding. Brené Brown tells us that the first thing to figure out is what’s keeping us out of this arena – what’s the fear? It’s natural to feel fear when you’re first entering into something more boldly. I still feel the fear of stepping out of corporate and into entrepreneurship — or at least uncertainty – but I also feel the excitement of ‘what if it works? what if I have lots more impact?’. This is uninhibited fear – the fear you can take distance from and step over. Having a strategy in place to handle your fear and stepping into the arena anyway is key, and also contagious! How many of us have an anecdote of how we were grappling with our inner demons as to whether we should speak out or not and finally, someone else’s voice opened a door for our voice to be heard. In the words of Diane Mariechild: “Trust that still, small voice that says, ‘this might work and I’ll try it.’”

 Setting goals for reframing the way we see our networks and intentionally building them outwards and in a more diverse fashion is pivotal to creating a space where more voices can be heard. There is a myriad of ways in which different voices can be heard, and they don’t necessarily all use the same channels. In fact, the different channels and the stepping away from the norm are what creates the impact. Declare it possible and start from there.

Navigating complexity is everybody’s modus operandi in today’s world, and it is never easy. The power of understanding your bias, your stories, your privilege and feeling safe enough to step beyond them is a great place to start in terms of understanding where we can influence and impact this process. Today’s workplace is becoming increasingly complex and even more so for women, as the complexity of the workplace is compounded by systemic bias and both covert and overt microagressions. How can we understand the different elements of the system and put them back together in a different flow? How can those with power and privilege use it more intentionally to open new opportunities and create equity?

A problem shared is a problem halved is the age-old adage – maybe not solved, but definitely seen through a different lens and thereby offering a solution you might never have thought of. The reality is that there are fewer women in major industries, such as finance, engineering and technology, because of systemic structures and processes that have to date limited access and opportunity. To build up a pipeline of women, the mindset change also needs to be actively built into the strategy so that their voices are heard equally and audibly at all levels of the organisation.

Create powerful communities

We need communities because we need to belong, and because belonging is good for the bottom line. According to a 2021 study by Deloitte Consulting, feeling like you belong can lead to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in sickness. We need communities because we need to create momentum for change to level out the playing field and break systemic bias to allow for different ways of working, thinking and leading, as well as innovation and productivity. Digital has much to offer here in terms of meeting the need for more interconnected, more collaborative, and more human-centred work; the need for emotional agility and literacy; and the need to check in with trusted peers to build systemic change. Women bring these skills more readily to the table. For women, who are in the minority in most leadership communities, the key is to find like-minded women to rise together, both as individual leaders and as a collective force for good – for business and people alike. We need to turn up the volume on all voices to empower allyship and equity in order to boost well-being and innovation.

In one of my most recent experiences working with a group of talented women in Peru, we discussed getting all voices heard, and the question of power. Powerful communities are about ‘power with’ not ‘power over’, about intentionally creating and sustaining a different power dynamic. Many stories and perspectives were shared about the multi-layered components of power, the body language of power, the cultural aspects of power, the gender-based assumptions and finally, the power of us. This was a rich, fun and insightful process. We challenged ourselves to think about the different power flows in our networks and relationships and to challenge the traditional, cultural and indeed our own definitions and assumptions about power. This is key to becoming powerful as you are: the power of YOU then becomes the power of US.  
As in any system, we need to meet the system and its leaders where they are at and then challenge and nudge them to a different place. The definition of power is different for each person, not to mention the toll that definition takes on them, and this in itself widens the understanding of how we can create different ways of being powerful and impacting systems. Leaders can find success in being conversant with when and how to use different power styles as there is no one-size-fits-all, although there are cultural norms and assumptions. Deborah H. Gruenfeld calls this playing high and playing low in her research on moving between authoritative and approachable power styles. Again, it is about intentionally leveraging the system and enhancing the impact you can have in the system.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be ‘masculine’ and ‘aggressive’ to be strong. You do however need to rise above your inner narrative and embrace the wisdom that lies in the vulnerability of understanding where you have impact. Develop your self-authority, self-acceptance and embrace your best self – man or woman – to define your system. Leaders must be change agents – not alone, but with a trusted circle inside and outside of work; they must make points respectfully to bring about micro behaviour changes and do their best for others to follow suit. But essentially it is about helping each other to rise, developing the interpersonal skills to allow you to do your best career work and lead from your best self, creating a different system inside and out.
There are various aspects to change: the more tangible and arguably somewhat easier aspects, such as changes in processes, governance, tools and systems, and the more adaptive and harder aspects, such as changes in behaviour, mindset, attitude, and ways of working and thinking. The latter are far more deep-rooted and therefore more difficult to change unless we make an explicit effort to do so. This is why intentionality is so important when taking about DEI and creating a different system. Susan MacKenty Brady and I discuss what women need to thrive in more fear-based traditional organisational cultures at some length in our recent podcast (listen here). Susan states that inclusion is not even on the table if disrespect still exists in a gender equity context. Love must replace fear: fear-based behaviour is deficient and founded on scarcity, whereas abundance and appreciation are love-based and can create a sense of belonging, vision and human community.
As ever, it is about balance. Today’s leadership is completely unbalanced and remains a masculine construct – a system built for and by men – but it does not have to remain like this. It would be better for organisations, communities, and indeed society and the planet if we had more balanced leadership and more women at global decision-making levels. Susan B. Anthony, who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffragette movement, tells us that “The day will come when men will recognise woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race.” This does not mean we need only women of course, we need as diverse a decision-making table as possible. We are talking about feminine leadership as well as women in leadership. The real inclusive leadership challenge is the individual leader’s challenge to do the inner work to understand and integrate feminine and masculine leadership qualities, regardless of our gender. This integration needs us to first understand the distinction between masculine and feminine leadership qualities, and the leadership qualities we are already skilled at and those we aren’t. Only then can we scale the benefits, opportunities and system created by such balance.

Thank you for reading.
If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 
You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.
If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course : https://bit.ly/HSP_TFV
Suzie Lewis

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