The issue of gender equality is one that needs addressing, according to Leith Mitchell, but that doesn’t mean we need to focus on improving the self-confidence of women.

Women are just as confident as men, Mitchell says, and we need to stop trying to “fix the women”.

Mitchell, whose company Mitchell Services helps organisations improve inclusion and diversity in the workplace, says that while there is a “widely accepted view that women are not as confident as men”, there is actually no research to back it up.

“That’s where the problem rides,” she says. “There is no biological research that says that you have a confidence chromosome that I wasn’t born with.”

In an article published in the Financial Planning Research Journal called “Bias interrupters – intentionally disrupting the status quo to create inclusive and well workplaces”, Mitchell says that while mentoring programs and awards specifically for women can bring people together and inspire others, they aren’t that effective in sparking change.

“In terms of actually moving the dial in gender-equity progress there is no causal link,” she says.

Mitchell calls out research findings that state women only apply for jobs when they are 100 per cent confident that they have the appropriate skills, while men apply when they think they can meet 60 per cent of the job requirements. The research is attributed to Hewlett-Packard by everyone from Sheryl Sandberg to the McKinsey Quarterly, Mitchell writes, yet there is no published source for it.

“It’s a myth,” Mitchell says. “This is a huge stereotype with no basis behind it.”

The effect of this stereotype is that awards for women in finance and mentoring programs then become geared towards trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist – a supposed lack of confidence – instead of addressing real issues like pay inequality and under-representation.

This is where the ‘fix the women’ approach stems from, Mitchell says; firms are under the misapprehension that there is a “deficit model” in women’s thinking that needs to be rebalanced.

Red herrings

Mitchell believes that the path to fixing inclusion and diversity imbalance in the workplace starts with placing an emphasis on targets, and making sure there are real consequences for not achieving them. She does not believe that quotas are the answer.

Quotas are a complete red herring,” she says. “In business we use targets.”

She points out that while people often use the terms interchangeably, targets and quotas are not the same thing. “They’re two different mechanisms,” she says.

Setting targets “with teeth” come first, she says; there is no point trying quotas if every effort hasn’t already been made to set goals and a real push made to achieve them.

For firms looking to do this, Mitchell suggests first scheduling what she calls an “inclusion and diversity audit and bias interrupter process”. This is something that well-meaning businesses often forget, she says.

“We tend to jump straight to mechanisms like quotas without really doing an audit and really understanding what the problem is,” Mitchell says. “Firms need to be asking crucial questions, like what is our current state? Where do we want to get to? Where is the rigour in our current approach and what are the aspirational targets?

“If you don’t understand what the issues are, it’s very hard to set a course for where you want to go,” she says.

Mitchell believes this is where the “fix the women” approach comes from; firms see other businesses doing things like mentoring and decide to do the same thing without asking if this fixes a real problem.

Instead, practices should approach the process of improving their diversity and inclusion levels with three core tenets in mind, she says; leaders need to set the platform by leading, firms need to establish baseline data through the audit process, and they then need to tailor bias interrupters to instigate change.

“One size does not fit all,” she says.

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Tahn Sharpe is a Sydney-based financial services journalist with a background in financial planning. He writes on advice, superannuation, investment, banking and insurance issues, is a certified SMSF Adviser and holds an Advanced Diploma of Financial Planning.