Psychological safety for women in the workplace

“Safety is not a gadget but a state of mind.”– Eleanor Everett

The highest performing business giants have one thing in common: Psychological Safety.

The concept of psychological safety was first introduced by an organizational behavioral scientist, Amy Edmondson, who coined the phrase and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”  We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Psychological stress makes people nearly three times as likely to leave their jobs, temporarily impairs strategic thinking, and dulls creative abilities. Solution finding and divergent thinking sink down diminishing the whole underlying process of creativity. Feeling psychologically safe refers to be able to feel at home while you are not actually home. It means to trust and be vulnerable in your work environment. And vulnerability, for most of us, is absolutely terrifying.

Seven years ago, Google started its quest of how workers can increase productivity — became focused on building the perfect team by launching “Project Aristotle”. By interviewing 180 teams and they found that psychological safety is crucial to ensure productivity.

Gender bias is something that runs deep in our society and it has a dominant grip at workplaces. Thus, providing an environment where women are free to be vulnerable is indeed a challenge but equally important to achieve as well.

Vulnerability and trust in yourself and the organization go hand in hand. A team is only driven to be the greatest when every single person regardless of their gender is ‘vulnerable’ enough to propose a risky idea, ‘vulnerable’ enough to accept their mistake, ‘vulnerable’ enough to share resources, ‘vulnerable’ enough to raise objections where it is due, ‘vulnerable’ enough to fully support his team even when they have turned down his ideas. A person will only be psychological safe when he is ‘vulnerable’ enough to truly put forward his views and openly accept those of others.

The rapidly changing world of the twenty-first century demands workplaces to feel like home. The success of today’s business hinges on the strength to take risks and be vulnerable about it in front of your peers. When work feels challenging but not threatening, the only thing that comes out of office boundaries is productivity. And who doesn’t want a thriving team that drives with the aim of broaden-and-build? A sense of safety propagates positive emotions of trust, curiosity, determination, and confidence. The demeaning factors of fear and embarrassment are eradicated at large, and the overall spectrum of organization broadens welcoming more positive traits and building an eco-system where innovative ideas are given birth. Hence the implication of ‘broaden-and-build’.

Women in all kinds of work fields are considered inferior to men. It is a long relentless chain of neglect that has been supported by men for men to men. But nonetheless, women have been doing their part. Women have reportedly been getting more degrees, claiming more positions and leading more businesses with every passing day. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women make up more than 56% of college students only in the USA alone. Even after having such stats women do not have the expected representation in businesses and factories. A McKinsey Global Institute report finds that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. Equal involvement of women in all kinds of industry and especially in tech is still a long dream to pursue and women will need higher educational attainment and more versatile skills to make successful transitions in the demography of industry. With the current workforce we have in hands, it is essential that these women feel a greater sense of safety and compassion in their work environments so that more women are convinced to not give up on their dreams and actually do give a hand in stabilizing the economy. Sense of safety drives women, the safer and healthier workplaces are the more workforce will flow in bringing diversity at work.

A feeling of being secure when they are amidst deadlines and challenges pushes women to greater and better limits. ‘Sense of safety’ in general is a synonym of ‘luxury’ for women in this society. Since 1911 when the first International Women’s Day was held, women all around the world have campaigned for safety. The one place having a dire need for psychological safety are offices. Seriously, it can’t be emphasized enough. What can make this picture turn into reality? Let’s dig things out:

FEEL SAFER TOGETHER:

Giving others a feeling of mental peace doesn’t sound scary right? Why not practice it? Instead of trying to bring each other down in attempts to climb up the corporate ladder there should be an encouragement of easing this pressure. After all, there is room for all of us at the proverbial table and the best way to feel safe is by radiating safer vibes yourself. The extent to which someone feels valued, appreciated and seen affects how they engage with people and enhances their mental peace.

BEING ACCESSIBLE:

Generational divides, differences in salary and tenure, relationship to the rest of the organization – there’s no shortage of obstacles to building a psychologically safe environment for women. The need is to ensure accessibility to the lead. When women will no longer have to think before transparent about their issues is when they will be psychologically at peace.  They must feel comfortable while interacting to change certain things. You can’t change anything without confronting it and not being afraid to confront wrong ensures peace of mind. Here also comes the implication of “Lead by example”. The ones in top need to make themselves more vulnerable so that the team feels more comfortable at taking risks. Make efforts to be more available. Be open and disclose their own mistakes and encourage team members to share their errors and what they learned from them. And even if you have to blame someone, blame the work and not the gender. DO NOT RELATE INCOMPETENCY WITH A GENDER. Accountability must never come in the way of psychological safety, and vice versa.

NORMALIZING ‘ONLY’ EXPERIENCE:

It’s not uncommon for women to find themselves the only females in meetings or other workplace situations. Being the “only” knock out a lot of confidence, and that combined with the passive sexism experiences makes women think our gender is a handicap which means the “only” ones constantly have to be proving themselves, earning respect and being better at their job than a man does. Lean In.org and McKinsey & Company conducted their fourth annual study of women at work, looking at 279 companies with 64,000 participating employees. They found that one in five women are often the only females in meetings or other situations at work. That statistic nearly doubles for women in senior-level positions; 40 percent of them reported being alone amongst all men. Not treating them as special or outcast is providing a safe space to them. Psychological safety comes with normalization of “ONLY” which enables candor and openness and, therefore, thrives in an environment of mutual respect. Of course, it would be ideal if people accepted women as they were, but expectations and biases do not change overnight and until then a normal decent behavior that will not make any person feel hostile at work will obviously be nice.

To conclude, no one wants to leave parts of their personality and mind at home and come with a void at work. To be ‘psychologically safe’ we can be free enough to talk about things without being discriminated because of our gender. Telling women, they are not capable of doing certain tasks because of their gender is not only discriminatory but can make them feel uncomfortable and doubtful of their own capabilities. Women too should redefine how they think about them. Although gender inequality in the workplace has gradually narrowed, the issue of providing a psychologically safe place for women remains. We can’t just focus on the efficiency of work. With the pursuit of great achievements of a diverse team, comes the risk of failure, and your team must know they’ll have a soft place to land without their gender being dragged into it.

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