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Why psychological safety is critical for gender equality in the workplace

Female professionals have been disproportionately exposed to stress, deteriorating economic outcomes, and workload increases across the board.

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Female professionals have been disproportionately exposed to stress.
Psychological safety refers to employees feeling they have the freedom to speak up.
It is also important that employers understand groupthink.

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From the COVID-19 pandemic to the Great Resignation to the cost-of-living crisis, the last few years have shone a light on the distinct challenges that different demographics face in the workplace.

Among these various groups, female professionals have been disproportionately exposed to stress, deteriorating economic outcomes, and workload increases across the board. It is now incumbent upon employers to make equity for women within their workforces a key part of their employee value propositions.

This is especially important in the tougher market which beckons in 2023, since greater levels of diversity, equity and inclusion have been associated with happier and more productive workforces. And against this backdrop, one concept has entered the limelight as never before: ‘psychological safety’.

Page Executive, a recruitment specialist in executive search, recently brought together a number of female leaders to discuss the topic, at our annual Women in Leadership dinner. The event gave attendees the opportunity to discuss common challenges with one another. It also featured a panel of female leaders at the top of their respective fields:

Alex Bishop, Head of Dispute Resolution and Litigation and Co-Head of Birmingham Office, Shoosmiths; Angela Seymour-Jackson, Chair, PageGroup; Debbie Robinson, Chief Executive Officer, Central England Co-op; Deborah Cadman OBE, Chief Executive, Birmingham City Council.

Numerous invaluable insights were shared, as well as actionable insights for employers looking to create more psychologically safe environments.

Psychological safety means creating an environment where everyone can be their true authentic selves in the workplace

So, what is psychological safety?

In the workplace context, psychological safety refers to employees feeling they have the freedom to speak up, take risks, and express their opinions without fear of negative repercussions. A lack of psychological safety can hamper women’s career progression, lead to burnout, and worsen employee turnover.

Alex Bishop commented: “To me, psychological safety means creating an environment where everyone can be their true authentic selves in the workplace.”

But what does this look like in practice?

Deborah Cadman OBE, said: “Psychological safety means people feeling able to speak freely, to maybe challenge, to maybe put issues they are experiencing on the table without others then interpreting that as a lack of capability or as weakness.”

Of course, this subject has particular relevance for women from other underrepresented backgrounds. Joanna McCrae, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Client Solutions Director at PageGroup, highlighted the role that psychological safety plays in providing women of colour with an equal platform to succeed:

“Everyone should feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work. Women of colour in particular need to be able to challenge, question, and thrive in their workplaces without fear of being perceived as aggressive or difficult. When we as women and women of colour can do that, we show how truly remarkable we are in our positions.”

Why does psychological safety matter for gender equity?

Creating a psychologically safe working environment is, ethically speaking, the right thing to do. But the reasons to prioritise psychological safety are not only moral – they are also practical and commercial.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Maren Gube and Debra Sabatini Hennelly argue that psychological safety is central to ‘organisational resilience’ – an organisation’s ability to weather challenges and difficult conditions. Employees and leaders that feel psychologically safe show greater agility, innovation, and adaptability.

Angela Seymour-Jackson, Chair of PageGroup, outlined the high stakes of this discussion: “If we can’t create a culture where diverse voices are heard, then we will be stuck with groupthink. And groupthink, longer term, is going to lead to bad outcomes for all of our stakeholders.”

It is also important that employers understand groupthink as something that can occur even in teams which have higher levels of diversity.

Angela continued: “It’s dangerous for organisations and boards to think ‘Well, we don’t have groupthink, because look how diverse we are!’ If there isn’t inclusivity and psychological safety, then there will be people in your team who are not making a full contribution.”

How does psychological safety impact women’s careers?

Psychological safety can have a significant impact on women’s career progression and therefore the diversity of companies’ leadership teams.

When people don’t feel able to express their talents fully or are concerned that making a mistake will incur negative consequences, their performance can suffer due to risk aversion and pressure. Women often face distinct challenges in the workplace, such as bias and stereotyping, which are often exacerbated for women of colour, disabled women, and women belonging to other under-represented groups. These experiences create feelings of isolation, which in turn make it difficult to speak up and take risks.

The result is that organisations which lack psychologically safe environments produce fewer female leaders, develop their female workers less effectively, and consequently experience worse outcomes.

The reverse is also true, however: psychologically safe workplaces produce better outcomes. As Alex said: “If people feel they can question authority, that they can check behaviours are as they should be, then the workplace is better and the organisation you work for is a much better place.”

Debbie Robinson agreed, saying: “When you have a psychologically safe workplace, you get the best out of everyone and your people are able to perform at the best level.”

How can employers create psychologically safe environments?

So, at a time when many employers need to keep their best people and become more diverse, psychological safety needs to be a key priority. But what practical steps can they take?

Here are some of the strategies and approaches that were discussed at the event:

  • Mentorship and sponsorship. Employers looking to improve psychological safety for women should give women the opportunity to connect with female sponsors and mentors. These figures will provide a safe space for women to voice their concerns, ask for help, and receive feedback.
  • Promote allyship. Truly psychologically safe workplaces don’t just allow women to speak out when they feel that there is an issue which needs to be discussed. They also encourage their colleagues, specifically men, to support and act on those conversations, acting as allies to their female co-workers.
  • Communication and connection. The way that people within an organisation communicate with one another can have a huge impact on its culture and the wellbeing of its people. Communication styles and habits which do not prioritise psychological safety can damage willingness to innovate and take risks. A focus on communication is even more effective when aided by initiatives which encourage colleagues to collaborate and connect with one another regularly. This is particularly important in the current era of hybrid working.

When you have a psychologically safe workplace, you get the best out of everyone and your people are able to perform at the best level.

  • Provide feedback. A range of experts have highlighted regular feedback as an effective way to create more psychologically safe environments for women. Women on average receive less feedback than their male counterparts, something which can damage their career progression and confidence. The way that feedback is delivered matters too: it should be supportive, non-judgmental, and focused on development and growth.
  • Adjust for your style of working. Psychological safety in a physical office space may differ from a remote or hybrid working environment. When colleagues work from different locations, it becomes even more important for people to feel they can be open and honest about their personal situations and needs. Equally, the layout of an office and the facilities that are and aren’t available can create a much greater sense of inclusivity.
  • Get input from employees. Mindfulness of how employees are feeling will allow employers to address concerns and challenges before they develop into serious problems. That’s why it’s so valuable to seek the opinions and feelings of workers across an organisation to understand where there is room for growth. And most importantly, employers need to listen and learn from mistakes.
  • Be proactive and measure success. As with any diversity or inclusivity related initiative, proactivity is essential. This means setting clear goals and metrics, implementing meaningful policies and practices, and encouraging contributions and ideas at all levels. It could also require training and education on topics such as unconscious bias, microaggressions, and inclusive communication.

How can you learn more about psychological safety?

This subject is only growing in importance, and one of the best ways to advance your own career is to connect with other professionals who value psychological safety and understand how it drives success for women in the workplace.

Deborah said: “It makes me so cross when I see all the wasted talent in women who don’t feel enabled and encouraged to take advantage of opportunities.”

Reflecting on the career path that has led her to the Chief Executive role at Birmingham City Council, she continued: “It’s been a great journey, but there have been issues along the way that I have had to deal with. And if I can share the things that haven’t gone well, along with the things that have gone brilliantly, then I think it can be a great thing for other women to learn from.”

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