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100,000 women can’t be wrong: Using data science to bust myths about women at work

by Jennifer Owens

April 25, 2022

As co-founder of dunnhumby, the global consumer data giant that first gained prominence with the creation of the Tesco Clubcard in the 1990s, Edwina Dunn grew her company to 1,500 employees, working with major retailers in 30 countries.

And she still had trouble being heard.

“I’d sit in meetings and make a point and there would be silence from time to time. And then my husband, who was my business partner, would make the same point and everyone would nod,” recalls Edwina. “Why is it that a woman’s language is still not completely understood when she makes a point?”

Edwina is on a mission to find out. As part of Meta’s Intersectional Ally series, she spoke with Meta Group director Sophie Neary about how she’s leveraged her deep expertise in consumer data to create The Female Lead, a UK-based advocacy and education organization and the role those female executives can play in lifting up the next generation of women leaders.

Working with Dr Terry Apter, a psychologist and author from Cambridge University, the organization has surveyed more than 100,000 women through its Fulfillment Finder study to study long-held beliefs still impacting women at work:

- Women aren't ambitious.

- Women with kids lose the desire to work.

- Women don't like taking risks.

- Women are uncomfortable earning more than their partners.

“These are myths,” says Edwina. “We found in our research that women are strong, they're brave, they're confident, and they're motivated to find their place in work, be successful and be the very best they can be.”

Sophie agreed: “We have to recognize that an equal world is one that gives everyone the opportunity to be themselves, according to them, and not according to what society thinks we should look like.”

The study also found that women who help other women, find more success for themselves as well. “I think it's part of the precondition, the sense that if you want to keep your job, you have to make sure that there's no one following in your footsteps,” says Edwina. “But we find that the more you invest in helping, or just being respectful of other people, the better your life and your work becomes.”

Edwina’s new book, entitled The Female Lead (Volume 2): We Rise by Lifting Others builds on that finding, featuring interviews with 67 inspiring women, each sharing stories of not only pushing doors open but holding them open for others to pass through.

“We celebrate how women can achieve the highest level by helping each other and being positive and not fighting with each other,” says Edwina. “All the women we interviewed give examples of how at a time of great difficulty, someone helped them.”

It’s an especially important lesson for female leaders, notes Sophie. “I see myself as a female leader. I've worked hard to get to where I've got to. But I also recognise that I’ve had opportunities that other women did not have. I think it's my responsibility for women in the workplace, above me, equal to me, below me, and certainly generations behind me to not only open the door but hold it open.”

And yet, headwinds remain, especially in the form of the mental load that women carry — as in all the behind-the-scenes work and worry needed to keep family life moving smoothly — and the “unentitled mindset,” or the societal pressure pushing back on women at every life stage.

“It's not about women being less,” explains Edwina. “Unentitled mindset is a societal condition in which women are conditioned to take up less space, to feel that they need to make invisible everything from the family concerns and childcare needs to the health issues they deal with, from menstruation to menopause.”

Women’s health is missed, misrepresented and misunderstood in the workplace, notes Sophie. “One in four women have a miscarriage, while one in seven will have fertility challenges. That's more common than breast cancer or diabetes, but we never ever talk about it. Imagine how different the workplace would be if men had chronic period pains every single month for their entire careers?”

Keeping such pressures hidden means leaders crafting workplace policies, schedules or promotion plans aren’t forced to think about them and opacity remains as stubborn as ever, making it harder and harder for women to navigate opportunities as they progress in their careers.

“They’re willing to take on big jobs and willing to take risks, but they walk that line between reward and risk,” says Edwina. “It's not that they feel less excited or don't want to take the role. It's that they're thinking, ‘What are the consequences? What will I have to do in my life to offset the cost of this new role?’ We want to make organisations start to understand these hidden conditions.”

But women can’t do it alone, stresses Edwina, noting that men must be part of the conversation as well.

“Women often talk about learning how to be more confident or learning how to communicate. But maybe men need to learn how to listen and hear the language that women offer up. I think we want men and women to be in the conversation equally. And that means adjusting our ear to how both sexes talk and communicate.”

Which is why research into these sometimes sensitive and intimidating issues is so important.

“If it's a subject we're feeling nervous about, we can let the facts speak for themselves,” says Sophie. “I want every woman to be armed and equipped with the knowledge to make the change. Because it's not about feelings. It's about fairness.”

==

Get your copy of The Female Lead (Volume 2): We Rise by Lifting Others here.

Hear more from Edwin Dunn at our Meta’s Intersectional Ally Series, recorded in conversation with Sophie Neary, director of UK and Ireland for Meta, for Women’s History Month here.

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