Focusing on the right behavioural system can boost confidence, break down stereotypes and increase our sense of belonging, says Jan Hills

There is a feeling among people I speak to in business that there is a new and urgent focus on gender in the workplace. Whether it has been caused by recent reporting on equal pay disclosure or the establishment of the Women’s Equality political party, I’m not sure – but we are seeing lots of discussion on the topic.

It coincides with a book I am writing with my daughter for women in the workplace. As part of our research for the book we have been running a survey collecting views on the experiences of men and women in the workplace through the lens of gender. We have also been interviewing business leaders, HR directors and heads of diversity and inclusion in companies around the world. The research is ongoing, but we are seeing a definite trend away from diversity and towards inclusion as the focus for organisations. Many leaders have told us that, without this shift, their vision and targets for diversity would never be met.

What we have been hearing is mainly about implementing process to ensure there is more inclusion: quotas on boards, targets on project teams, invitations to the underrepresented to be part of initiatives, and training for managers on how to listen when people have a different point of view. While all this is fine, I question whether it will get these organisations where they hope to be.

One of the key things that seems to be missing is the drive to create a sense of belonging. It’s hard to feel included if you are still subtly kept on the outside and habitual ways of working that operate through role stereotypes do this. All the research on stereotypes suggests that not only do people get treated differently based on stereotypical expectations, they actually behave in line with those same expectations. We are largely unconscious of this, and both men and women ‘play’ to the stereotype expected of them unless consciously interrupted.

Stereotypes are usually responsible for the behaviours that create a sense of exclusion. Research by mother and daughter team Joan C Williams and Rachel Dempsey, as reported in their book What Works for Women at Work, shows that women walk a tightrope between being seen as competent and being well liked. If a woman is competent, she doesn’t seem nice enough. If a woman is nice, she isn’t seen as competent. This complicates everything, because at the same time that women need to own their success, step up in meetings and take their place on boards and management committees, doing so causes them to be less liked.

A similar issue happens when women take a strong stance or strongly express a point of view. When they do so – especially with a strong verbal stance – this can be interpreted as negative, while a man doing or saying the same things would not be. Research has found that these behaviours are negatively framed because they challenge the social hierarchy between men and women.

This plays out in body language as well as verbally. For example, men are more likely to use expansive postures and open gestures. Amy Cuddy’s recent research with young children identifies the age at which they start associating expansive posture with males and contractive posture with females. It’s very young – around four years old. Cuddy says children believe that wooden dolls in expansive postures are boys and that wooden dolls in contractive postures are girls.

The same research found that how we hold our body – our posture – is important both for what we signal to others and how we feel ourselves. Dozens of studies have shown that adopting expansive postures makes people feel more confident and powerful. It also activates the behavioural approach system.

We have two systems that drive feelings, thoughts, behaviour and physiology. One is the approach system, which generates a sense of reward; the other is the inhibitory system with its sense of threat. When our approach system is activated, we are happier, more optimistic, confident and creative, more likely to take opportunities, more open to new ideas and learning, and more physically energetic. Helping everyone to spend more time in approach will automatically strengthen inclusive behaviours.

The other advantage of an inclusive, approach culture is that stereotypes break down on personal connection. We stop seeing our male colleague as arrogant or our colleague in another department as aloof when we get to know them personally.

In our research, we have not heard about organisations taking this aspect of inclusivity into account in their policy and training. Surely this is where inclusion strategies need to be aiming? Creating a culture consistent with the approach system will only happen through initiatives that understand and break down stereotypes and reduce a sense of threat for everyone, irrespective of gender.

Jan Hills is a founding partner of Head Heart + Brain