Illustration: Getty Images
Illustration: Getty Images
Illustration: Getty Images


Developing empathy is the key to spotting – and solving – gender discrimination

A failure to consider the world from anyone else’s point of view is what’s really driving sexism in the workplace, says Harriet Minter

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By Harriet Minter on

If there is a quality lacking from my daily news digest at the moment, it is empathy. Admittedly, that’s less to do with the world in general and more to do with Donald Trump’s grabbing of every headline going. From his tone-deaf tweets to his executive orders, the president of the United States doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in looking at the world through anything other than his own lens. Which is a shame because, in his new book, The Empathy Instinct, Peter Bazalgette argues that empathy could be the one thing that creates a more civil society, if we just knew how to employ it. I think he could be right.

The definition of empathy varies but, for Bazalgette, it comes down to the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes and gain their understanding of it. It differs from sympathy in that it’s not just about feeling sorry for the hardships someone else encounters (although, if Trump wanted to try some of that right now, I’d take it), it’s actually about being able to imagine what it would be like to walk in their shoes. We’re most likely to employ empathy with our family, as we can recognise ourselves in them, but its power comes when we take it out into the wider world – our friends, our communities and our workplaces.

Because, if there’s one place we continue to see this lack of empathy, it’s in the workplace. New research from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) shows that, last year, four in five managers witnessed some form of gender discrimination or bias in their workplace. That’s 80 per cent of managers, otherwise known as the vast majority. This would suggest that gender discrimination is far more prevalent than anyone who wasn’t a woman would believe. It also shows that, while employers might be starting to recognise discrimination, they’re not clear on exactly how to stop it. I think a little more empathy could be the answer. If Portico, the employer who sent home Nicola Thorp, had given a little more thought to what it might be like to walk in the high heels they made their staff wear, they probably could have saved themselves a load of bad publicity and some very angry employees.

What goes unnoticed is the discrimination that happens every day, but is only felt by the person being discriminated against. So, how do we tackle that?

This failure to consider the world from anyone else’s point of view is what’s really driving the stats, the CMI found, particularly when you look at them more closely. While over 80 per cent of both sexes had witnessed inappropriate remarks, only 65 per cent of men had seen women struggle to make their points heard in meetings (83 per cent of female managers had witnessed this). And, while 61 per cent of female managers had seen bias in pay and bonuses, not even a third of male managers thought this was an issue. It reminds me of the CEO of Salesforce, who was so convinced that he paid his male and female staff the same that he told the senior women in his team that if they could find any discrepancies he’d make up the difference. It cost him $3m.

What’s clear from these stats is that it’s easier for us to spot discrimination when it’s clearly in front of us – when someone shows us a spreadsheet with figures, or says something clearly discriminatory in our hearing. What goes unnoticed is the discrimination that happens every day, but is only felt by the person being discriminated against. So, how do we tackle that?

In his book, Bazalgette references the emerging trend in EQ testing for doctors. EQ stands for Empathy Quotient and is used to test how empathetic you are. The idea is that the higher your EQ, the better you will be with patients. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use something as simple as this to start promoting leaders who actually – shock, horror – cared about the people they were managing?

Belinda Parmar runs The Empathy Business, a consultancy which measures and embeds empathy in some of the world’s biggest businesses. She believes that empathy could transform the way we work, but it’s going to take more than just a bit of testing or training. “In the companies I work for, they often think that empathy training is the panacea to becoming more empathic as a company, but the key to sustained empathy is setting up a culture where empathic behaviours become the norm,” she explains. “Empathy is not sympathy – it's not feeling sorry for a new mum who is not getting enough sleep and patting her on the back, but rather understanding the impact of your own behaviour and taking the appropriate action."

Understanding our own impact is something the whole world could do with a little more of right now, but until people start to do this for themselves, we’ll just have to keep running surveys to point it out instead.


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