Opinion: Development professionals, here's how to shatter the glass box

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The term “glass ceiling” conjures images of an invisible and seemingly impenetrable barrier that keeps women from advancing above a certain hierarchy. An employee with many gradients of differences — gender plus sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity or disability — faces even greater constraints for both vertical and lateral shifts.

The field of international development is particularly susceptible to the glass box paradigm, even as it supports changing the lives of diverse people across nations. In order to create solutions for the complex problems confronting development, both the employer and employee bear responsibilities for breaking the glass boundaries that limit achievement.

Development organizations build armies of experts, typically with women and people of color filling the back offices and scarce diversity at the top. Often, young Caucasian program staff manage older more experienced local managers and subconsciously determine capacity more by accent than merit.

To build stronger synergies for more effective problem solving, we need to go from building local systems to monitor compliance to exercising participatory decision-making within our teams.

While we focus on hiring experts with language and cultural fluency to implement programs, we need to employ and promote diverse people to design and decide outcomes and not just support programs in the home offices. To build a true partnership in development, we need to lift the glass box.

Here’s what employers can do to truly provide access and opportunities for diverse staff to fully contribute to an organization’s full potential:

1. Recognize bias

Decision-makers establish order both with intention — policy — and subconsciously — bias — to maintain control. When preconceived notions are not checked but instead used to form judgments, and then decisions, the resultant policies are flawed. Developing policies that are in keeping with the context rather than habit requires decision-makers to step out of their comfort zones and build shared power.

Decision-makers need to realize that releasing their hold on the controls is not the same as giving up authority. In addition, unconscious bias perpetuates stereotypes that challenge the progress of people that look, sound, or talk differently than the majority. Recognizing the biases we carry gives us the ability to make decisions based on need and merit for better solutions.  

2. Break groupthink

Leaders are usually surrounded by like-minded people doing things the ways things have always been done. In these scenarios, a divergent view is often seen as contradictory and a conflict that needs to be managed. Building diversity of thought deliberately and without constraints on creativity, facilitates innovation for competitiveness as much as solutions to the complex problems of today.

In order to build diversity of thought, employers need to tap multiple networks beyond their usual sources, create opportunities for engagement by staff at all levels and across silos, build a safe culture that is based on mutual respect, and develop soft skills for all employees to enable them to find their voices to express their knowledge and talent.

3. Change mindsets

While many employers support the notion of diversity and inclusion, the crux of the issue is in deciding how much to push back the walls or push up the ceiling of the glass box, but not removing the box altogether. There is comfort in what is known and has been. However, today the double bottom line requires strategy and flexibility that is out of the box to address management challenges and development problems. Building equity by providing access, opportunities and advancement to staff requires changing the mindset of control and boundaries.

The conscious and intentional recognition of the need and value of ensuring true diversity of backgrounds, thought, and expertise on a platform of equality creates opportunities for more inclusive recruitment, better retention, high-quality performance and greater gains for the entity.  

There are things employees can do, too:

1. Recognize the impact of bias on their own behavior

In terms of the employee, a first step to building strength is to stop walking on glass. Bias conditions both the system and individuals in the system impacted by prejudices. Individuals facing prejudice need to stop allowing a biased system to act as the mirror for their own self-worth or capabilities.  

2. Build confidence

Building a sense of self with acceptance of all the facets of diversity that creates the whole person is a prerequisite for self-assurance. With this conscious awareness and acceptance of the self, intention can be better formulated, and ambition created to fuel proactive and productive behavior in the workplace.

3. Negotiate and take responsibility

With knowledge of one’s own full potential comes the power to negotiate access, advancement, and remuneration. So instead of tentatively walking on glass, dance on glass. And when the box crumbles around you, as it will, step out of the box, and bring others along.

Ultimately, morale, performance, and profitability depend on both employers and employees utilizing diversity as a key variable in the success of their organization and their own growth.

How can we bridge the gap between commitment and action to advance women’s leadership in development? #GlobalDevWomen Leadership Weeks explores tips for professionals and organizations on how to reach gender parity through advice articles, op-eds from industry leaders, online events, and a virtual career fair for mid-senior level women professionals.

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About the author

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    Indira Ahluwalia

    Indira Ahluwalia is an advocate and entrepreneur who is committed to changing the world for the better by taking meaningful risks to tell the truth respectfully to build greater synergies particularly in conflict. Indira leads KAUR Strategies and provides executive coaching, corporate strategy and advisory services, and diversity and inclusion consulting.