How shutting women out of decision-making hampered UK Covid response | Covid inquiry

Helen MacNamara, the UK’s second-most senior official at the height of the Covid pandemic, lifted a lid this week on a “toxic environment” at the heart of Downing Street, in which female civil servants became “invisible overnight” and were routinely spoken over or ignored. A picture emerges of an unpleasant and unequal workplace, but experts say that the apparent exclusion of women from decision-making is also likely to have impaired the UK’s response to the pandemic.

At the most basic level, a lack of representation at the table excludes gender-related insights and expertise. MacNamara highlighted specific issues that were overlooked including the lack of provision for domestic abuse victims during the first lockdown, concerns about oversized PPE not fitting and endangering female frontline staff and unnecessarily restrictive rules around pregnancy care and childbirth. She said the WhatsApp group for her children’s school – typically the domain of mothers – provided a barometer of public sentiment from which leadership appeared disconnected.

Dr Renata Bongiorno, a social psychologist at Bath Spa University says: “People who have a range of different experiences bring those experiences into decision-making. It seems to have been a culture that didn’t value that.

“If they’re already not listening to the privileged woman who is at the table that’s a really bad sign. They’re likely to be overlooking a whole range of other experiences that people in the community are having. It goes beyond gender.”

This tallies with the suggestion by Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s former director of communications, that “class-based bias” resulted in a huge government blunder on Marcus Rashford’s meals campaign. “I remember asking in the cabinet room of 20 people, how many people had received free school meals. Nobody had – resulting in a policy and political blind spot,” he told the inquiry.

Experts say the value of diversity goes beyond simply having different viewpoints at the table, however, citing a range of ways in which diverse groups perform better at basic problem-solving tasks.

This is not because men and women “think differently”. Prof Gina Rippon, of Aston University says: “To date, neuroscientists have been unable to come up with any consistent differences that distinguish a woman’s brain from a man’s brain, or that, having reanalysed decades of research allegedly measuring sex differences in personality and skill, the only conclusion one can reach is that females and males are more similar than they are different.” But the makeup of a group, and the dynamics that emerge from that, can play a huge role in its overall performance.

In a team dominated by a particular perspective there is a risk of “groupthink”: a majority lean in a particular direction, reinforce each other’s conviction that their view is correct and as this shared belief becomes the focus of discussions it becomes more difficult for anyone to raise an opposing view.

“Only listening to a select, small group of decision-makers leads to bad outcomes because alternative views and not aired, and potential problems are not identified,” said Prof Michelle Ryan, director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the Australian National University.

There is also evidence that people consider more critically proposals from people they perceive as being from a different background to themselves.

“There’s lots of evidence that people tend to scrutinise what a person is saying more closely and think more carefully about what they’re saying when there is more diversity in the room” says Prof Anita Williams Woolley, an organisational psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s been shown that diverse juries more carefully consider the evidence than homogenous juries.”

In a landmark study on collective intelligence, Williams Woolley found that the ability of groups to solve problems was only weakly linked to the average IQ of individuals, but strongly correlated with the number of females in a group.

The observation that people have to raise their game in a more diverse group could be viewed as a positive flipside of the more intense scrutiny that women often feel subjected to in workplaces and roles traditionally dominated by men. According to Bongiorno, this phenomenon – rather than some hardwired biological tendency – goes a long way to explain the more inclusive, democratic leadership styles associated with female leaders such as Jacinda Ardern.

Bongiorno says: “Women will generally have to prove their leadership, bring people with them and show that they’re taking others’ opinions into account because they have a more tenuous claim on leadership due historical differences [in status]. Men are given the benefit of the doubt, they’re given more leeway. It’s part of their power.”

“It’s not that women should receive less scrutiny, it’s that men should receive more,” she adds. “That’s why I prefer to talk about male privilege rather than just prejudice against women in leadership.”

The argument for an inclusive workplace is often made on the basis of fairness for the career prospects of individuals. But in the context of a global pandemic, the greatest risk of excluding the female perspective – and that of other under-represented groups – was of bad decisions going unchallenged and a worse performance by the collective group.

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