‘The Gender Code’ – Recoding stereotypes in the workplace

Danielle is the author of Breaking the Gender Code, a book which gives women the tools to craft a life true to their values. The concept of breaking the code, or breaking stereotypes challenges the perception that you can’t have it all; you can if you let go of the need to be perfect and accept where you’re at. Danielle shares some of the insights from the book and why ‘women’s traits’ are an asset in business that have direct impacts on the bottom-line.

Sara: Your background is in finance – what led you to pursue a career in women in leadership?

Danielle: I was a CPA working for corporates and multinationals all over the world. I had my first child when I was working for a company in the Silicon Valley. After that, I didn’t want to go back to the corporate world. I became a stay at home parent and took the time to learn new thing; I became a certified Personal Trainer, then became a wellness coach. I loved the transformation people were experiencing and wanted to give them tools to drive their own transformation. That’s when I became curious about the psychology behind it how people could not only make change in their lives but also sustain it. I then went into executive coaching and went back to the corporate arena.

I kept seeing my clients burnt out. They were executives doing well at work and parents also. I then started research to find out more about women leaders. It came up that women were ‘leading lonely’. They weren’t seeing themselves as Wonder Women and just saw their performance as what society expected of them and what they expect of themselves. In the process of this, I had to break my own codes of what it meant to be a mother and someone with a career.

I never set out to write a book but it was too good to keep it to myself. It was benefitting me, and I wanted to benefit others. What was life-changing to learn that it’s important to dial down the parent guilt, the self-judgement and the frustration. It comes back to your version of what it means to be successful and a good mother. I interviewed non-mothers and stay-at-home parents, too. Most women believed it wasn’t possible to have it all or not all at once, so I put what ‘having it all’ means, under the microscope. It’s crucial to map out what is important to you and adapt to that. Do what is important to you; you don’t need to be in an either/or position with work, or motherhood. Figure out what is important and let the village support you with the rest.

Sara: What is the current status quo with women in business?

Danielle: What kept coming up in interviews when I asked, ‘what changed after you became a parent?’ is that women had built strengths and skills of creativity, perspective, compassion, patience, adaptability and flexibility. These are the core skills that we need now and into the future for impactful, successful and sustainable leadership. Women are honing these skills through parenting, which is seen as a career liability but is an asset. I wanted to help shift the narrative on this. When you ask people in leadership what mothers are like, the answer is always ‘productivity powerhouse’. If this is the case, why do we still view being a working parent or a mother as a liability? We don’t value caring roles and motherhood as much as we value other roles. I want to help people see what they already have is valuable and to make the most of that.

Sara: What are the benefits of creating opportunities for women in the workplace?

Danielle: There are so many! By opening up the workplace for women to progress, we create pathways for men at home. These leadership skills you’re honing as a parent are an asset to an organisation. If men are involved too and take on the responsibility of caring for others and their children, then they develop these skills also. Instead of empathy and customer experience training, you can learn this by connecting with what you’re learning in real life. If we connect with these attributes purposefully and intentionally bring them into the workplace, this creates opportunities and pathways for men into caring roles in a family. Then they’re building that career asset, too.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency has been collecting data for five years. Recently, data was used to look at the impact of women in senior leadership and found a causal link between bottom-line performance, productivity and a market value increase of 6.6% as a result of women in key leadership positions.  

Sara: What is the Gender Code(s) and why is it important?

Danielle: The Gender Code is a set of default beliefs about the ‘natural’ differences between men and women that create stereotypes which keep the genders firmly in different boxes. We’ve been programmed with this coding around gender and it’s deeply embedded in our culture, which isn’t good for anyone. We tend to ignore it. Women are pigeonholed in the role of carer and men as providers.

When we question, understand and interpret it, then we can ask ourselves ‘does this make sense anymore’? If we know what’s out there, holding us all back, then we can look at the Gender Code and our codes. Then we look at which part of the codes are valuable to us – what codes do you want to create and what do you want to delete? Write a code that works for you rather than against you.

Sara: Have you noticed a substantial change in the time you’ve been working with women in business?

Danielle: I’m quite an optimistic person; I see the positive change and try to magnify it. When I started the research project, it was just before #metoo. After this, there’s been more conversation, dialogue and sharing of stories about what’s going on with women. More cases are being reported with domestic violence and abuse. It’s been an unearthing and it’s all out in the spotlight now – there’s no excuse not to keep making progress. The rate of change has been glacial, but I feel it’s going to pick up more momentum as there are amazing women working on this. There are Male Champions of Change and people in power doing amazing things. It’s recognised as a business imperative, which is really going to move the needle Until business leaders can see the difference to their bottom line and competitive advantage, they won’t commit.

There was recent research in the UK which found there were fewer women in ‘CEO feeder roles’. There were women in senior leadership positions, but these were functional. CEO feeder positions tend to come from the P&L and operational background. There is still a change that needs to be made to support this. The pipeline needs to improve in the ASX 200 also which was highlighted by recent research released by Chief Executive Women. It revealed that of the 25 new CEO appointments over the past year, only 1 was a woman. (Gender Equity Insights research here). There was only one appointed woman in the last year. Businesses understand the need for change; it’s not a nice thing to do or a nice thing to have, but a business imperative to progress women into leadership roles.

Sara: What is your why?

Danielle: Ultimately, I’m doing this to cure lonely leadership. If we’re connected to ourselves, to others and nature, our expectations of our relationships are compatible with our actual relationships, then there isn’t the loneliness.

Sara: What strategies do you help women with to implement into their own practice?

Danielle: It all depends on each individual and their context – what is their most pressing challenge? What keeps them up at night, what do they want to achieve? What gives them fulfilment? What do they really want and want to move away from? I have different approaches to different pressures like time, emotional and mental load, judgement and guilt pressures depending on what they’re suffering and feeling.

Sara: Why is it especially important, in this crazy COVID time, for women in business to realise their potential?

Danielle: Right now, we’re going through a phase of putting all the important things in the spotlight, like the value of caring for others in society, which is the foundation of everything we do. You can’t have someone performing on stage without all the crew getting them there. All the people on stage have people that do their makeup, choreograph the dance etc., but the crew aren’t as highly praised as the performer. This is the same as hunter/gatherer, but gatherers can supply 66% of the tribe’s calories, plus they set up shelter, keep the kids alive and drive education. Angela Saini wrote a book on this ‘How Science Got Women Wrong’.

This is the perfect opportunity to refocus on what is important and reprioritise our values. We need to look at the core of who we are and use that as a compass to drive what we’re doing. What is most important to you? All your decisions should be made from this core. It doesn’t matter what the context is, if you make decisions according to your values, then you will be successful.

Sara: What is your final message to business leaders?

Danielle: What’s most important is helping women to understand that what’s going on right now is hard and vital to moving through is acceptance. Accept that what is going on around you and you’ll unlock the energy rather than fighting it. Accept what’s going on, where we are and look for the opportunities and benefits with what’s happening. Acceptance doesn’t mean you have to put up with everything but accepting that this is where we are will help you be resourceful and move through.

In addition to great insights on people and culture, Culture Champs hosts virtual coffee group sessions. If you’re interested in joining fellow people leaders in discussion, register here to get updates on the next event.

Have you got a great story to share, or insights that would help the people leaders community? Reach out to Sara Ellis-Jack on LinkedIn for more info.

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Hi there! I'm a millennial, Masters' student and multi-faceted (that last m was a stretch). I love to write and am all about sharing what I know to help my followers grow and learn. I'm passionate about people, culture, painting, baking, reading and of course, writing!

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