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18 June 2013

The Power of One Word

Very recently I attended the Womensphere Europe Summit in London.  This was an inspiring event, with many exceptional men and women sharing the story of their career journeys and their views on diversity.  I left the summit feeling two things:

  1. Reinvigorated in my passion for what I do.  It never hurts to have purpose.
  2. What a shame more people who don’t yet get the business case for diversity weren’t in the room. I feel it would have changed their minds.

Womensphere

I took a nugget from each presenter (there were many, with brief ten minute time slots each).  But some of these nuggets connected, and have manifested into the concept of this blog: the power of one word.

Part of the summit focused on STEM industries, which is not at all surprising when we consider that less than 25 percent of STEM jobs in the U.S. economy are held by women, despite women holding nearly half of all U.S.  jobs.   At points the discussion moved in the direction of understanding why these disciplines don’t appeal more to women.

This gets one thinking about how these subjects are ‘packaged’;  historically they have often been articulated in a manner that makes them appear boring, uninteresting, too challenging, dull and masculine to females, in particular school girls.  Yet, at the same time we know that women in these industries can excel – think Ada Lovelace or in more modern terms Marrisa Mayer.  

This certainly resonated with me.  I remember getting the results of aptitude tests I had to complete during my penultimate year of secondary school (high school). The career advisor informed me I had an excellent aptitude to become an engineer.  When I asked her what such a job would entail, I soon switched off – it sounded anything but interesting to me – and engineering aspirations I did not pursue.  With hindsight, I know that engineering is  anything but dull and uninteresting.  I wonder how many others girls had the same experience as me?

Dr. Oliver Oullier a Professor of behavioural and brain sciences referenced some research during his session.  The reference sparked my interest so I found it, and read it.  The research involved an experiment whereby school children ranked as both high and low performing geometry students were asked to learn a complex geometrical figure and reproduce it.  One group was told they were completing a geometry task, the other group was told they were completing a drawing task.

Dr.

The results: both groups of students performed equivalently in the drawing task, while the low achievers underperformed in relation to the high achievers when the task was presented as a geometry task.   Low achievers in geometry performed better on the exact same task once it was labelled a ‘drawing task’; many reasons including stereotype threat were identified as the antecedents for such results.  At its simplest what you can take from this research is that the power of one word can enhance performance.  This certainly is thought provoking when we consider how these disciplines are ‘packaged’.

Next I move onto Phil Smith CEO, Cisco UK and Ireland.  Phil spoke of an apprentice programme Cisco had introduced recently to target school leavers.  Year one, they advertised for Programme Services Apprentices.  Their intake was 60% female and 40% male.  Year two, they went to market with a System Engineer Apprenticeship programme – they had 19 applicants, but only two were female.  In response, they took note of the ‘packaging’ and rebranded seeking ‘Business Technology Specialist’ apprentices for the exact same roles. Guess what happened?  They recruited 60% female and 40% male.

Cisco

Cisco has taken this concept from ‘thought provoking’ to ‘practice’, and from a gender perspective has reaped the reward.  And when it comes to thinking about how we ‘package’ STEM, how about the fact that women with STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs.

Moving beyond STEM to business more broadly, it’s hard not to talk about ‘the power of one word’ without mentioning the HBR Heidi/Howard case-study.  For those of you that have recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In you’ll be well familiar with this research, which was aimed at testing the perceptions of men and women in the workplace. 

Groups of Harvard students were provided an identical case-study with one exception – a name change – one group’s case study referenced Heidi, the other group’s referenced Howard.  Both groups equally respected Heidi and Howard, and rated them equally competent.  However, Howard was considered to be the more appealing colleague while Heidi was considered selfish, and not the type of person you would want to work for or hire.  Let me reiterate the case was identical; Heidi and Howard are the exact same person with the exception of the name change.  The case reinforced a plethora of research that finds success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women in business.

Ultimately, if you are in the business of seeking objective talent and development strategies for your entire workforce no matter the industry, or attracting talent towards STEM disciplines or careers, there is a lot to be considered when we think about the power of one word (or in Cisco’s case three words!). 

Aoife



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