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From the Covid-19 pandemic to the Great Resignation to the cost-of-living crisis, the last few years have shone a light on the distinct challenges that different demographics face in the workplace. Among these various groups, female professionals have been disproportionately exposed to stress, deteriorating economic outcomes, and workload increases across the board. It is now incumbent upon employers to make equity for women within their workforce a key part of their employee value proposition.
This is especially important given the tougher market we are observing in 2023, since greater levels of diversity, equity and inclusion are associated with happier and more productive workforces. And against this backdrop, one concept has entered the limelight as never before: ‘psychological safety’ – the theme of Page Executive’s recent 2023 Women in Leadership Dinner.
The event gave attendees the opportunity to discuss common challenges with one another. It also featured a panel of female leaders at the top of their respective fields:
Here, we’ll share some of the invaluable ideas to have come out of the event, as well as actionable insights for employers looking to create psychologically safe environments.
In the workplace context, psychological safety refers to employees feeling they have the freedom to speak up, take risks, and express their opinions without fear of negative repercussions. A lack of psychological safety can hamper women’s career progression, lead to burnout, and exacerbate employee turnover.
Alex Bishop commented:
To me, psychological safety means creating an environment where everyone can be their true authentic selves in the workplace.
But what does this look like in practice? Deborah Cadman OBE, said:
Psychological safety means people feeling able to speak freely, to maybe challenge, to maybe put issues they are experiencing on the table without others then interpreting that as a lack of capability or as weakness.
Of course, this subject has particular relevance for women from other underrepresented backgrounds. Joanna McCrae, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Client Solutions Director at PageGroup, highlighted the role that psychological safety plays in providing women of colour with an equal platform to succeed:
Everyone should feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work. Women of colour in particular need to be able to challenge, question, and thrive in their workplaces without fear of being perceived as aggressive or difficult. When we as women and women of colour can do that, we show how truly remarkable we are in our positions. This is why events like Women in Leadership are so exciting: they showcase inspirational women’s journeys and provide tips for the women who attend.
Creating a psychologically safe working environment is, ethically speaking, the right thing to do. But the reasons to prioritise psychological safety are not only moral – they are also practical and commercial.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Maren Gube and Debra Sabatini Hennelly argue that psychological safety is central to ‘organisational resilience’ – an organisation’s ability to weather challenges and difficult conditions. Employees and leaders that feel psychologically safe show greater agility, innovation, and adaptability.
Angela Seymour-Jackson, Chair of PageGroup, outlined the high stakes of this discussion:
If we can’t create a culture where diverse voices are heard, then we will be stuck with groupthink. And groupthink, longer term, is going to lead to bad outcomes for all of our stakeholders.
It is also important that employers understand groupthink as something that can occur even in teams which have higher levels of diversity.
It’s dangerous for organisations and boards to think ‘Well, we don’t have groupthink, because look how diverse we are!’ If there isn’t inclusivity and psychological safety, then there will be people in your team who are not making a full contribution.
Psychological safety can have a significant impact on women’s career progression and therefore the diversity of companies’ leadership teams.
When people don’t feel able to express their talents fully or are concerned that making a mistake will incur negative consequences, their performance can suffer due to risk aversion and pressure. Women often face distinct challenges in the workplace, such as bias and stereotyping, which are exacerbated for women of colour, disabled women, and women belonging to other under-represented groups. These experiences create feelings of isolation, which in turn make it difficult to speak up and take risks.
The result is that organisations which lack psychologically safe environments produce fewer female leaders, develop their female workers less effectively, and consequently experience worse outcomes.
The reverse is also true, however: psychologically safe workplaces produce better outcomes.
As Alex noted:
If people feel they can question authority, that they can check behaviours are as they should be, then the workplace is better and the organisation you work for is a much better place.
Debbie Robinson agreed, saying:
When you have a psychologically safe workplace, you get the best out of everyone and your people are able to perform at the best level.
So, at a time when many employers need to keep their best people and become more diverse, psychological safety needs to be a key priority. But what practical steps can they take?
Here are some of the strategies and approaches that were discussed at the event:
This subject is only growing in importance, and one of the best ways to advance your own career is to connect with other professionals who value psychological safety and understand how it drives success for women in the workplace.
It makes me so cross when I see all the wasted talent in women who don’t feel enabled and encouraged to take advantage of opportunities.
Reflecting on the career path that has led her to the Chief Executive role at Birmingham City Council, she continued:
It’s been a great journey, but there have been issues along the way that I have had to deal with. And if I can share the things that haven’t gone well, along with the things that have gone brilliantly, then I think it can be a great thing for other women to learn from.
At Page Executive’s annual Women in Leadership Dinner, we host female leaders and professionals from across various industries and sectors to discuss all these issues and more. These events are an invaluable opportunity to connect with other professionals, share ideas, and to ultimately move the world of work in a more positive, inclusive direction.
We are already planning our next dinner. To find out more, please get in touch on the details below:
Sarah Bradley, Partner, Page Executive
E: [email protected]
Louise Shepherd, Associate Partner, Page Executive
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