Overcoming gender norms through workplace diversity and inclusivity

Overcoming gender norms through workplace diversity and inclusivity

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 17 March, 2023


Organisations implicitly encourage employees to adopt a bottom line mentality because it is important for profitability and yet, co-workers might penalise their female colleagues for displaying this same behaviour.

Kenneth Tai

Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Human Resources; Lee Kong Chian Fellow; Member, Institutional Review Board

In brief

  1. Women and men continue to be held to gender norms in the workplace today. Research has shown that women with higher levels of bottom-line mentality experience more mistreatment in the workplace than those who meet traditional stereotypes. 
  2. Having visible reporting channels, clear policies on gender-based discrimination, gender-bias awareness programmes and encouraging supervisors to monitor their own actions are key to creating safe and equitable workplaces. 
  3. The Bloomberg Gender Equality Index sets a global benchmark by listed public companies that have shown commitment in their gender equality efforts. These serve as best-in-class practices for other organisations that wish to create a diverse and inclusive workforce.  

In a 2022 survey by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) in Singapore, 1 in 2 respondents admitted to experiencing workplace discrimination  in the past five years, listing race (41%), age (35%)  and gender (23%) as the top three reasons for discrimination. Kenneth Tai, Associate Professor of Organisational Psychology, shares that these numbers might even be under-reported, considering the cultural taboo in Asia that inhibits people from openly discussing personal issues. Nevertheless, these survey results reveal one fundamental truth -  that even in an age of cyberactivism and the fourth-wave of feminism, women and men continue to be held to gender norms and biases in the workplace. Traditional notions of women exhibiting communal qualities (e.g.being warm and caring), and men displaying agentic qualities (e.g. being assertive and confident) are still commonplace, with those veering from these stereotypes finding themselves penalised by their peers. 

In a recent study, Assoc Prof Tai and his team looked at how a bottom-line mentality - or the perception that obtaining bottom-line outcomes should be prioritised over other organisational goals like employee welfare - could lead to gender-based mistreatment in the workplace. His findings shed new light on the differing expectations that men and women are held to today, as well as the important role that diversity plays in creating safe and equitable workplaces.

The relationship between bottom-line mentality and workplace mistreatment

Building on previous research and the Role Congruity Theory, Assoc Prof Tai and his team sought to determine if a high or low bottom-line mentality could be perceived as a gender-norm violation, leading to mistreatment by one’s peers (i.e. being ignored, invalidated, or sabotaged at work). The first key finding was that women experienced more mistreatment when they had higher levels of bottom line mentality while in contrast, men experienced more mistreatment when they had lower levels of bottom-line mentality. Assoc Prof Tai says, “organisations implicitly encourage employees to adopt a bottom-line mentality because it is important for profitability and yet, co-workers might penalise their female colleagues for displaying this same behaviour. So they are caught in a conundrum that men, who are expected to be competitive, are not”.  

It was also found that the percentage of women in the team influenced the degree to which the adoption of a bottom line mentality was perceived to be a gender norm violation. Assoc Prof Tai explains, “When there are fewer women in a team, their presence becomes more visible and the behaviours that they display in the teams are more likely to be paid attention to. Hence, when they display counter stereotypical behaviours such as adopting a higher bottom line mentality, it is more likely to be noticed, and they are more likely to be penalised.” Therefore, he believes that increasing the proportion of women on work teams is an effective and essential strategy for minimising the mistreatment of women due to gender-norm violations.

What insights come to mind?

What insights come to mind?

Click to respond and see what others think too

What makes you skeptical?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

What makes you curious?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

What makes you optimistic?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

What makes you on the fence?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

Story successfully submitted.

Story successfully submitted.

Thank you for your story. We'll be consolidating all stories to kickstart a discussion portal in our next release. Subscribe to get updates on its launch.

I consent to SMU collecting, using and disclosing my personal data to provide information relating to XXX offered by SMU that I am signing up for/that I have indicated my interest in.

I can find out about my rights and choices and how my personal data is used and disclosed here.

Tips for creating safe and equitable workplaces

When it comes to creating safe and equitable workplaces, Assoc Prof Tai believes that a multi-pronged approach is key. From organisation supervisors, to corporate and government policymakers, he believes that with the right messages, clear policies and visible channels for reporting, gender bias-free workplaces can be achieved in the long run. 

What can these groups do to create gender bias-free workplaces?

Organisation supervisors

  • Be aware of their own displays of bottom-line mentality which could signal to their employees to follow suit. Aim to eliminate biases in their own evaluations of employees and potential hires.
  • Educate team members on the importance of being gender-neutral through awareness and training programmes
  • Seek to create a company culture that values transparency, inclusivity and diversity.

Corporate and Government policy-makers

  • Have clear boundaries on what constitutes gender-based discrimination and harassment. This would deter people from engaging in evaluative comments and co-worker mistreatment. 
  • Provide visible channels and proper frameworks for reporting to encourage victims and observers of unfair treatment to come forward.
  • Government policymakers can work with companies to ensure that guidelines are clear and specific to each stakeholder,and offer strategies for building a gender bias-free work culture.

Best practices and the benefits of a diverse workforce

In 2016, Bloomberg launched its Gender-Equality Index (GEI) to track the performance of public companies committed to disclosing their efforts to support gender equality. Setting the global threshold for gender data-reporting, the GEI measures gender equality based on five pillars: 1) A female leadership and talent pipeline 2) Equal pay and gender pay parity 3) An inclusive culture 4) Clear anti-sexual harassment policies and 5) Pro-women brands. Its 2023 list features 484 companies across 54 industries in 45 countries, and includes names like DBS Bank (Singapore), Bursa Malaysia Bhd (Malaysia), Manila Electric Co (The Philippines) and AIA Group (Hong Kong). 

Assoc Prof Tai says that companies that are looking to improve on the gender equality front can learn best practices from these big names that have made impressive headway in creating equitable workplaces. DBS Bank, for example, has made concerted efforts to ensure that women make up 50% of the workforce and 40% of its senior management team. The company also runs a series of programmes to improve its workplace diversity, such as an “Unconscious Bias Training” programme that aims to expose employees to implicit biases, including gender bias, and provide practical tools they can use to adjust any unconscious patterns of thinking. 

“Making structural changes from a top-down approach can have powerful consequences”, Assoc Prof Tai shares. “When there are more females at the higher levels of the organisation, it signals to existing employees, potential talent, and the market that diversity is a priority. This improves the organisation’s reputation but more importantly, can lead to greater innovation and creativity, workplace harmony, and all-round productivity.”

Methodology & References
  • Bloomberg. Gender Equality Index. Retrieved from: {https://www.bloomberg.com/gei/}
  • Eagly A. and Karau S. Role Congruity Theory of Prejudice Toward Female Leaders. Women Unlimited. Retrieved from: {https://www.women-unlimited.com/wp-content/uploads/prejudice_against_women.pdf}
  • Britannica.The Fourth Wave of Feminism. Retrieved from: {https://www.britannica.com/topic/feminism/The-fourth-wave-of-feminism}
  • Fuentes M.Digital Activism. Britannica. Retrieved from: {https://www.britannica.com/topic/digital-activism}
  • Aware.1 in 2 experienced workplace discrimination in Singapore over the past five years, with race, age and gender discrimination most common. Retrieved from: {https://www.aware.org.sg/2022/09/1-in-2-experienced-workplace-discrimination-aware-milieu-survey/}

Inside the mind of

Kenneth Tai is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behavior and Human Resources in the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University. His research focuses on understanding how individuals can cope with negative interpersonal events at the workplace. He has collaborated with universities globally as well as with local governmental and non-governmental organizations. His research has been published in leading journals such as Academy of Management Review, Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes and many others. His work has been covered by various international media outlets, such as Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Boston Globe, Vancouver Sun and local outlets such as The Strait Times.