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Questioning and changing workplace stereotypes as a working mother

Danielle

Dobson

Danielle Dobson is a powerful speaker who connects with her audience in a relatable, engaging way. She uses her warmth, passion and knowledge to spark curiosity and guide audiences to break the Gender Code, based on societal perceptions of gender roles in relationships, workplaces and communities.

Over 50 interviews, hundreds of conversations, thousands of hours of research and analysis, and one book later she is the undisputed expert of how to navigate the Gender Code to make life, work and being human more rewarding.

Author of Breaking the Gender Code, Danielle has been featured in publications across Australia. Her passion and dedication to share this message and inspire audiences to crack the Gender Code and re-write their own, that make her an extraordinary speaker.

Tell us about your background

Do you know one of those little kids who is always asking ‘why?’. They constantly want to know more and are so incredibly curious about the world that sometimes their insatiable appetite for truth and knowledge can drive you mad? Well, that was me and I’ve never grown out of it. I just go about it in a different way these days. Making sense of the world and people in it and connecting with the meaning and purpose behind everything is at the heart of how I operate.

What’s this got to do with DEI? I grew up with two younger brothers, surrounded by male energy and doing stereotypically male activities and pastimes. This included but wasn't limited to, watching and playing cricket in summer, AFL in winter and pretty much any other sport available in between. I even played AFL for my local club - the only female in the entire association at the time.

The brilliant thing about sport is that it’s not just about fitness. Most of it is about identifying strengths and weaknesses, understanding team dynamics, executing strategy and, of course, doing everything you can to help your team win.

Being ‘trained’ in the world of sport and a stereotypically male way of operating set me up perfectly to work in finance in male-led, mostly-male industries. Also, based on my judgment about what makes sense and personal goals, I didn’t notice any barriers or limitations due to my gender. Rather, I saw challenges to navigate through.

This is the lens I saw the world through at the time but unfortunately, it wasn’t the way the world was and didn’t reflect the lived reality of many other people. Everything changed when I became a mother.

Have you experienced any obstacles you feel were a direct result of your gender?

Working in corporate America one week and being a first-time mum the next was quite a shock. I’d read all the important books on pregnancy but my son came 8 days early – the time period I was planning to read the important books on parenting!

I realised pretty quickly that I preferred to be at home with Alex and was in the privileged financial position to be a stay home mum. It was exactly where I was meant to be and ticked all my meaning and purpose boxes. In my world, it was the MOST valued role I had ever had. Being Lead Parent and Family CEO.

While I was personally fulfilled, I certainly felt the full force of the Gender Code hit me. Suddenly I had less perceived value in the world. Even though I was honing my strengths and skills of organisation, prioritisation and empathy and developing new ones like patience, PLUS keeping another human alive - it was not what others were seeing.

This became even more apparent when I re-entered the world of paid work after a 6-year absence. Despite my 14 years' experience in the world of finance, being a CPA, living & working in 5 countries across a range of global roles, I felt like I had to continuously 'prove' why I was worthy of being in this arena.

However, I was okay with it because I was using my internal compass and making decisions based on what was (and is) most important to me – connection, growth and freedom.

This isn’t the case for other women though. A huge part of the reason I am at this place on my DEI journey is because I wanted to answer a question that had been perplexing me for decades...

From my work with professional women (as a Personal Trainer, Wellness Coach and Executive Coach) I saw how many women were finding it impossible to prioritise their wellbeing, experiencing tension between succeeding both at work and at home; unfortunately feeling like they are failing at both. They were exhausted, anxious and facing burn out.

I wanted to know WHY? What’s behind this belief? What’s holding them back? And what I could do about it?

The interesting thing is that we often don’t notice what we’re putting up with. We often don't realise that 'those things' beneath the surface that we can't quite put our finger on, are actually causing us pain. Maybe we're just too busy to explore it? 

Or if we DO notice, we push through it, trusting ourselves to be able to manage the stresses and pressure. Usually by working harder and being more productive. However, when we notice it’s happening to others and they’re suffering, it can trigger something deep inside us and we feel compelled to do something to help them.

This is what happened to me. The more I listened to the stories of women in leadership roles across a range of professions, and the more I dug into it, the madder I became about the disparities and power imbalances! It all seemed so unfair. All I knew was that I would stop at nothing to understand it and fix it.

So, what started as a question, morphed into a mission. I knew I had to share what I was discovering because I knew it could make a difference to so many people’s lives. But there was a cost. To do the work justice, I had to expose my own judgmental beliefs and unconscious biases - and then break my own beliefs around productivity and motherhood. And it hurt.

I discovered that the Gender Code is at the heart of a lot of challenges in workplaces, families, relationships and communities. It’s like a societal algorithm. It prevents each and every one of us from stepping into our own unique potential. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it AND there’s no turning back.

What advice would you give to hiring managers looking to improve their DEI development, actions and progression?

I’d start by asking some key questions:

1. What are you signalling to the market?

2. What is your job ad saying to the people you WANT to hire?

3. Are you dusting off the same old job description and presenting it the same (or slightly differently), and then expecting diverse thinkers to apply?

4. Are you being inclusive in terms of the WHOLE process of hiring?

5. Are there areas you need to place under the microscope and really pull apart and then be more creative in your approach?

6. Are you ASKING what people truly want, or just ASSUMING you know the answer?

While sticking with what we know may have been effective pre-pandemic, this approach is at odds with our new world of world and hiring for true potential.

 

What’s working right now?

1. Hiring managers focusing on potential rather than ticking every single skill or experience.

2. Hiring managers doing things differently and letting go of the view, “what’s worked for me in the past will work for me again now and I’ll stick with what I know.”

3. Taking HR teams and hiring managers on the journey and making them truly aware of what is happening in the market. How? Use data from reliable sources to obtain job numbers, specific industries etc – and educate hiring managers on how to apply it.

4. Focusing on the critical must haves vs. what can be taught.

5. Hiring managers realising we are dealing with the unknown. Prepare for what that means and understand that mistakes will be made - and embrace it.

6. Continual encouragement from HR, hiring teams, and leaders for new ideas AND building a strategy. As opposed to jumping at shadows and many ideas, stick to a strategy based on the best outcomes for the business and its people.

Solutions:

1. When roles are published, businesses should aim to be better at saying what they are looking for. Not 'this is what you need to tick' – but we’re looking for potential in certain areas.

2. Re-framing self-doubt and seeing it as a strength – the person has learning agility, curiosity, looks for where the gaps are. Typically, businesses don’t want the reverse which can be arrogance.

3. Change the approach to job ads – start with breaking the rules and saying the narrative has changed.

4. Approach people on LinkedIn after some review – rather than standing outside the house throwing darts at the dartboard, get inside the house. A better way to get the right candidate to open the job ad.

Are there any instances where positive DEI development and progression has particularly stood out to you in a workplace environment?

One of the best approaches I have seen is when there is a collective approach to developing people. A HR leader I’ve worked with shared how her and her team played a major part in transforming a transport business from a high majority male workforce - to an environment more appealing to (and then hiring) female candidates.

They achieved this by engaging with a large number of females already working within the organisation, and asking them for feedback on their traditional job ads. They asked whether it truly resonated, how it made them feel overall, and whether they truly believed it was attractive to females.

They found that the traditional wording was a deterrent to female applicants. By changing the wording and sticking to the core requirements of what was needed, they increased female applicants for their roles by more than 50%.

 

What are the most important factors of DEI?

I believe the most crucial elements to getting DEI right and making it sustainable are:

1. Starting with strategic, operational and people goals, and identify how DEI will play a key part of achieving them.

2. Give people from all levels within your business the option to provide input and buy-in on the 'how' (policies, processes, and objectives).

3. Ensure workplace, team and leadership culture is healthy and aligned with point 1 above. Accept that culture is essentially a set of behaviours based on the ‘rules of belonging’.

 

The success of development and progression is determined by the extent to which people leaders in the business are prepared to truly invest in their people. Not only in training and operations, but also in terms of who they are as humans and what’s important to them.

People will quickly sense if there's a disconnect between values on a page and values in action. Even if they can’t articulate it, they feel the tension. Especially people who are more attuned and have an integrity sensor. They will be unhappy and most will leave.

When policies and processes have input from all people within the organisation, it is a great way to model diversity, equity and inclusion. People feel as though they have a voice and it is heard.

Which organisations / charities would you recommend in terms of DEI resources and education?

Diversity Council of Australia

Workplace Gender Equality Agency

Australian Gender Equity Council

NeuroLeadership Institute