Be More Podcast: Dismantling Gender Expectations with Dorothy Dalton

Dorothy Dalton, founder and CEO of 3Plus International, explores the challenges of gender balance in the workplace today, and how it directly affects employee growth.


Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Dorothy Dalton, founder and chief executive officer of 3Plus International, to explore the challenges of gender balance in the workplace today, and how it directly affects employee growth.

If there’s one thing the pandemic revealed, it’s the ways in which crises have a disproportionate impact on different genders—a disparity rooted in how we subconsciously perceive the roles of men and women. And while we often think of gender discrimination as tied to the workplace, as Dorothy Dalton explains, it’s the ways in which gender expectations are embedded within our social hierarchies that makes them so pervasive in our working lives, too.

Dorothy Dalton is a dedicated practitioner of talent management and people development.  She is the founder and CEO of 3Plus International, and a key proponent of achieving gender balance in the workplace.

“Not all sexism is hostile. A lot of people think it is, but some of it can be benevolent. It’s so embedded into our systems, we don’t even notice.”

Dorothy Dalton

If you want to learn more about her perception of the current landscape, and the path she sees to gender parity then tune in, check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.

Key Takeaways

  • Dorothy’s Background. Dorothy is a British citizen who has settled in Brussels. She founded 3Plus International when her daughter graduated from university and faced sexism at her workplace. Dorothy consults and trains businesses to help them manage their biases, and to further introduce diversity into the organization.
  • The Impact of COVID-19 on Female Workers. As Dorothy puts it: there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that traditionally female styles of leadership were recognized as successful ways of dealing with the pandemic. The downside is that women were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. They faced an escalation of domestic violence, a larger loss of jobs (thanks to their proportionately higher placement in frontline worker roles), and a greater emphasis on household management, leaving many feeling more burned out that their male peers.

  • The Issues Men Face in the Workplace. Dorothy believes that traditionally, society expects men to work hard and earn more, sacrificing the time they spend with family, at home, and out socializing, all of which can negatively impact their mental wellbeing. Acknowledging these pressures is important when attempting to redress the gender balance.

  • A “Difficult Woman” Versus a “Difficult Man.” Dorothy observed a difference between the top words on Google used to describe a so-called difficult woman versus a difficult man. A difficult man is committed, hardworking, efficient, productive, and diligent, while a difficult woman is awkward, complex, and troublesome. Many of the attributes that are positively enforced in men will simultaneously be denigrated in women.

  • How Leaders Can Take Action. Our workplaces need a leadership commitment to change the way we hire people, promote, reward, and measure success. Besides those aspects, we need cultural and structural change over time. Each of us can play our part in enacting those changes—but those changes are ultimately systemic, and true gender parity is still many years away. Understanding that and still working towards it all the same is crucial.


Patrick Cournoyer: Welcome to Be More: A Podcast by Peakon. Dorothy Dalton is joining the conversation today. She is a dedicated practitioner of talent management and people development. She is the founder and CEO of 3Plus International, which is an organization passionate about gender balance for business success, specifically how to strengthen the talent pipeline. We’re going to explore the challenges with gender balance in the workplace today, and how it directly affects growth within an organization. Dorothy, thank you for joining the conversation.

Dorothy: Thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here.

Patrick: Great. We have a bunch to talk about today. First, Dorothy, could you tell the audience a bit about your background, and how you decided to go down this journey, and where your passion comes from in this space?

Dorothy: I’m a Brit, as you can tell, but now, I’m half Belgian, and I’m based in Brussels. I basically set up 3Plus, when my daughter graduated from university, she’s a lawyer, went into the workplace, and encountered the same sexism in her legal profession as I did in the steel industry in the UK, in the ’80s. I decided at that point that I wanted to become more active.

I set up 3Plus, I have an HR background, executive search training, and consulting. Now I’m spending a lot of time working with organizations, particularly, reimagining their recruitment processes, trying to make them I would say, bias managed, and to bring in diverse talents, strengthening the talent pipeline that way, and to encourage women to reach their potential and through organizations, obviously. It just helps them be more successful.

Patrick: You have a lot of content and research out in the world, which is quite impressive. There is a lot of perspective within your current research and your current content that has talked a lot about the impact of the pandemic, on gender in the workplace, gender discrimination in the workplace. I’d like to start there and get your perspective on how the pandemic affected the experience from a gender perspective in the workplace?

Dorothy: There are two elements, there is the good news and there is the bad news. I’m going to start off with the good news. The good news is that one of the things that came out in the pandemic was what is acknowledged as being a more traditionally female style of leadership was recognized as being a successful way to deal with crises. We saw a whole host of international leaders who were acknowledged for their skills and their contribution to management of the pandemic, that’s the good news. The downside was that women were disproportionately impacted. There are a number of reasons. I think probably there are four reasons.

The first one is that they occupy a lot of frontline roles. They are very hypersensitive workers, they work in the sectors that are impacted by the pandemic that were closed. I’m talking about hospitality, events, restaurants, that sort of thing, where they have people facing roles, which were shut down. They were let go. They were furloughed, let go. The other really bad elemental was the escalation of domestic violence. Just very early in the pandemic, we saw and reported incidents increasing up to 38%. They vary in different geographies, but across the globe, it really was a very negative aspect of the pandemic. Now it’s just a question of getting women back into the workplace.

The other thing we’ve seen is the decline in their wages and salaries. Their wages have gone down more than the men. I think because they work primarily or very largely in elements of the economy where they can’t work from home, then that they have been stuck at home. The other thing that’s happened is they have taken on the lion’s share of what we call invisible work, homeschooling and childcare, just massive numbers.

I’ve seen different figures, but I saw something today, which I haven’t verified, but it was like 60 hours a week of housework and childcare. There are lots of things going on for women, and there are some people that are saying it sent them back to the 50s. I don’t feel that despondent, but I think we do have to take steps to deal with them.

Patrick: With this, obviously, the pandemic and all of this change that’s happening, do you see specific ways that women have been excluded during the pandemic? I know, there’s been experiences or conditions that have caused circumstances that have prevented women in the workplace, as you were saying, industries, or frontline workers being primarily the gender, like female gender. Do you see other ways in the business world where there have been some exclusions that have occurred maybe more actively, or more regularly, due to the pandemic?

Dorothy: I think it’s about availability. I’m a bit of an outlier on this, but I think in some ways, it’s the relationship issue. I think, and I say this when I do workshops is that women not only have to negotiate with their workplaces, they have to negotiate within their relationships. For instance, I’ve worked with a CEO of– Well, she was COO of a medium-size advertising company, and her husband had his own business, working from home.

She was the one that wanted to resign, and, and it’s going back to traditional stereotypes where women are expected to take care of children. It’s about having that conversation they’re having. We need to talk type conversation, and realigning priorities. Certainly one of the arguments that I frequently hear is, “But my husband or my partner earns more than I do.” I think the critical question is this: “Can you live without that second income?” If you can’t live without that second income, then you have to find a way to make it work.

I’ve worked with organizations running workshops, and how to find that balance so that women can work from home effectively, that they don’t have burnout, they’re not trying to work 15, 18 hours a day trying to manage the home and the workplace. I think it’s very nuanced, and it’s very complex. I think in the States, you have it a bit tougher than we do in Europe because your employment laws are not as strict. I have heard of women being threatened with dismissal because they have kids at home. I think there has been some backtracking on that. I think it depends on the geography. In such geographies, it’s much more difficult than others.

Patrick: How do you see these impacting men? Because a big part of this discussion is around discrimination across genders in the workplace, and do you see this type of discrimination also happening or applying to men?

Dorothy: Yes, I think once you get stereotyping that men are equally trapped by gender stereotypes as women because they’re forced into this revenue-generating role. They’re trapped into what I call the presence and personal sacrifice culture. We saw recently, with the Goldman Sachs analysts, who were working 100 hours a week, which is utter nonsense.

Men and women are expected but they’re predominantly men, to make those sacrifices in terms of family and social life and health and mental well being for career advancement and a bigger salary.

I think they are trapped. I think men when they don’t conform to that stereotype, if they ask for flex, if they ask for paternity leave, if they take time off to look after their kids or family, then they are penalized. I think we also saw another CEO of WeWork, I don’t know whether you noticed that. That was yesterday or the day before, and was saying that basically the people that work from home are the less engaged people.

You’re starting to see this two category workforce, this two-tier workforce, those that go to the office are seen as probably employees, they’re going to be super engaged, and the ones that stay at home or want to work hybrid, are going to be penalized or viewed more negatively. I think it’s not good for men and women. Women are tougher than men, but men are still involved anyway.

Patrick: You bring up an interesting point there around perception and how the workforce is perceived depending on many different factors. But there’s this concept around the concept of being difficult, and you’ve done some research and some publication around this. this idea around a difficult man versus a difficult woman in the workplace. Can you tell us a bit about that and what your opinions are on that?

Dorothy: Well, I think there’s a great quote from Jane Goodall, the anthropologist, and she’s [unintelligible 00:10:42], “It actually doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman, that’s why there are so many of us.” That research started off by a colleague of mine, googling “difficult man”, “difficult woman”, and the adjectives from Google, describing men and women, vary. For women, it was tough, awkward, complex, troublesome. For men, it was efficient, productive, hard working, dynamic. Basically, you had that hero-type notion of being difficult for man, and the pain in the- can I say that here? Pain in the bum attitude from a woman.

Yet, women are caught in a double bind. When they go out of gender stereotypes, and they become assertive, they’re called a bitch. But if they are too passive and easygoing, then they’re criticized and they lose that. It’s what we call the Goldilocks dilemma. Too little, too much, get it right. How’d you get it right when there’s so many unwritten rules that we have to navigate? It’s really tough.

Patrick: we’re kind of going down this route, talking a bit about sexism in the workplace. How do you think it occurs, what do you think are the root causes of it now? Because it’s evolved quite a bit over the past 50 years. I think some of the core of that has remained the same, but how have you seen sexism in the workplace evolve? not always in a positive way over the past year, or two years, you’ve been doing this work now for specifically for the past decade. I’m curious to see how you’ve seen this evolution.

Dorothy: Well, it goes back to a primal time, so I got my unconscious bias 101, which I basically will do a PhD in like two minutes, but it starts off in primal times when people freeze, fight, or flight. People, it’s a way of storing information, right? Unconscious bias, we store information. For anyone listening to this under 40, If I use the term “hashtag”, that will resonate. It’s a way of storing information. Certain labels are attached to women.

For example, women want children, then it’s all women who want children. That’s in the stereotyping and a gender expectation. Then we move on to gender hierarchy, where we assign greater value to the things that men do to the things that women do, and there have been systemic moves to make sure that those roles are enforced over time, historically. It’s not something that happened like 50 years ago, this is historic. I mean going on for centuries.

Basically, what we have now in a knowledge economy, where you can run a company with a French manicure on an iPad. You don’t need to be 6’4″ and male, but those basic rules still apply. We are still using the same notions of what makes a good leader by male qualities. There’s been a slight shift, but they still apply. That’s the short version.

Patrick: What do you think the cost is, within business, of the current state of sexism in the workplace?

Dorothy: Oh, It’s massive. I pulled out a figure this morning, and it was gender-based discrimination. It came from the [unintelligible 00:14:14], US$12 trillion, or 16% of global income. I think that that is only about what we know. I mean one of the things that is really important to understand is that, first of all, not all sexism is hostile. A lot of people think it is, but some of it can be benevolent, but it’s so embedded into our systems, we don’t even notice. The other thing is that 75% of harassment and sexism incidents are not reported. How can we quantify what we don’t know? It’s massive.

Patrick: Do you see that there’s a regional difference as far as US versus UK, Europe versus APJ? Where do you see from your perspective, do you see certain areas that have the biggest challenge with it? Again, like you said, there’s probably a significant amount that maybe isn’t even reported in certain regions in the world.

Dorothy: I think, internationally, the Nordics are considered to be more advanced, so that’s really important. I think elsewhere in Europe, I would say we’re probably ahead of the US slightly, in terms of the way we’re trying to deal with things, in terms of legislation quotas, that sort of thing, which is not typical in the US. I think in terms of everyday sexism, it’s embedded everywhere.

Things like the type of things that women, we call microaggressions, such as the unintentional sexism about being interrupted, comments on appearance, being called pet names in a business meeting. The way people, you know, the looks and gestures that we get, online harassment. all of these things are going on internationally, and I think they’re pretty much across all geographies.

Patrick: talking a bit about the state of play right now, and the circumstances that a lot of organizations are in, and also how the past year, year and a half of the pandemic has directly affected the experience of individuals in work. I’d like to move the conversation a bit to the future, and get your perspectives on how we can look at reducing some of these challenges that are directly impacting growth paths for people? we can look at both women and men and genders within the workplace.

It doesn’t specifically have to be around women. I know that you do quite a bit of work around developing the female talent pipeline and organizations and growth paths. First, let’s start around what would you say to a people leader in the workforce today some suggestions or practices to reduce sexism, discrimination within their workplace?

Dorothy: I think we need a massive shakeup. I’ll give you, for instance, I was in Dubai last week as you know, and I was talking to a senior female executive who found out she was being paid 47% less than her male counterpart. First of all, it requires a genuine leadership commitment to tackle pay gaps, sexism in the workplace, sexism and harassment, systemic change. Changing the way we hire and promote people, how we reward and measure success, really, really important. then we need to have cultural change. that means involving everybody and bringing them on board. You can’t get that cultural change and systemic change unless leaders are prepared to devote time and money and support.

Patrick: I would agree with you on the fact that systemic change is needed. Because this is not just a situation where there’s one thing that can be changed and all of a sudden- Or one part of an organization that really makes strides forward, but for the rest of the organization is not focused on it, or if it’s not a priority area, or priority focus at the most senior levels within an organization, then there’s the continued struggle with that.

Tell us a bit about the work that you’re doing with organizations on developing specifically the female pipeline, talent pipeline within the organizations. What have you seen, or have you seen, recently, some really strong examples of great work in this area? It doesn’t have to be specific, the names of the companies. But where have you seen meaningful change happen at a company in the past year or two years that has directly impacted the talent pipeline around women in the workplace?

Dorothy: Well, I’m currently working with a big French company with 100,000 employees, and they’re doing a whole pipeline transformation that is involving identifying, dealing with unconscious bias, so it’s in the B2B sector which I do a lot of work in. Very heavily male-dominated, very traditional. We’re looking at unconscious bias, we’re looking at reengineering the recruitment process. Basically, everything from the way profiles are written to the way they identify and source- not just female talent, but diverse categories of talent. The way they’re promoted through the pipeline.

We’re doing coaching programs for men and women, which is great. You know, really getting the men on site, because, quite often, some men see this as a zero-sum game. They see if you give that woman that piece of the pizza, that means there’s less pizza for me, what they don’t see as the pizza gets bigger and there’s more for everybody. If they’re doing a great initiative where they’re working with men and women, so coaching, and they are aiming for parity, gender parity by 2030. That is a brilliant initiative. It involves a lot of stakeholders and a lot of negotiation, overcoming resistance, supporting women, supporting men. It’s really a really rewarding project.

Patrick: Bring up a good point there. Dorothy is that if you think 2030 is nine years from now, and I think that is a realistic timeline for many organizations of realizing this is not something that changes overnight. This is not something to fall back on. If you don’t make progress in, or I shouldn’t say if you don’t make progress, but if you’re not making significant progress in six months, that doesn’t mean to just lose sight or give up on it. It is a significant challenge for many organizations and it is a long-term commitment and it is a project that is incredibly focused.

However, it has a complex timeline. Do you see many organizations thinking about this in the way they should be? Which is, this is the long, this is a long run. This is a marathon. This is not just, we’re going to make us change today, and everything’s going to be good in six months. How do you see organizations looking at that? Honestly telling themselves, we have to commit to this for the long term, and it’s going to take us a while to make the full changes that we want to make, but we have to be happy and satisfied with incremental changes during that period of time, do you think organizations will struggle there?

Dorothy: Well, I think they’re all struggling. Some have been very committed and the ones that are committed are still meeting pushback. The pushback tends to come at middle management level because these are people basically on the frontline doing the work. The leaders are sending all of these great memos and diversity ambassadors and all of these nice things and then leaving it to the people to deal with. But I think that it is a marathon, not a sprint that I think it needs ongoing commitments.

I think a lot of organizations think, okay, if we do a two-hour lunch and learn unconscious bias, “[unintelligible 00:22:40] we’re done, we’re finished.” Then, “Dorothy, that didn’t work.” Then, you’ve got to keep on doing it because no one likes to change. None of us like to change. It does mean every single one of us has to reflect on a lot of things that we do and forget all those shortcuts, which were so handy, like this that’s going to get pregnant. I won’t promote her, that shortcut thinking.

I do think it’s going to be a long haul. I think the biggest decline is pessimistic in terms of- I’ve seen various ones, but I think they’re talking 80 to 100 years almost before we get gender parity. I mean, it’s quite pessimistic. Sadly.

Patrick: Well, I think the key there is that the only way we’ll ever get to that is if we focus on it now and start. There has been a significant amount of work that has happened as you’ve probably seen over the past decade, doing this work. There’s a very long road to go, but I think conversations like these, the work that you’re doing within organizations helping to bring reality and understanding to the challenges that are in the workplace, how the past year and a half has really impacted and changed a lot of the workplace.

You also brought up a good point earlier in the conversation around that’s not all bad. Like change is not always a bad thing. It can be a great thing. It’s just, I think how we look at the change and how we harness it to be used in a positive way into the future and not allowing perceptions or results of things that have been out of our control over the past year and a half directly impact our individual futures within organizations.

When you’re talking about- there was one of the points that you mentioned around employees working at home are less engaged right than employees that are in the office. Many people around the world had no choice but to be at home. I actually think many organizations have done a significant focus and a wonderful job at keeping workers at home engaged because that is a hard thing. Every organization has had some impact of trying to keep teams connected and involved with each other and part of the fabric of the organization when they’ve had no choice, but to be from home. I think that in general companies have done a really good job focusing on employees in general, maybe you disagree.

Dorothy: l think it’s mixed. To be clear, it wasn’t me that said that.

Patrick: It was quoting from somebody else.

Dorothy: The CEO of WeWork, yes. My own feeling is that we’re at a crossroads. One of the things that if there is a bonus to COVID, it was, it did mean that organizations that had been resistant to structural change were forced to. What we’ve seen is those that were agile and were able to adapt and cope and set up distributing working systems, advanced. They kept people engaged. They were clear about boundaries because that’s also something that people are complaining about is this, “We don’t know if we’re working from home or living in work.” We have to have some clarity around that.

I think that organizations can go one way or the other, the ones that I gave you earlier, but also some of the tech companies have been much more flexible. It’s an opportunity to put a stake in the ground and say, this is the way we’re going to be and go forward. I’m very much in observation mode at the moment. I think we’ve got like a 50/50 split, but the other thing is that all of these are big companies. But in Europe anyway, 99% of businesses are SMEs. Do they have the infrastructure, the tech, and they make the investments to allow these hybrid systems to work?

The other interesting thing is that if we start working from home and we start to organize, start to reduce the real estate footprint, which a lot of them is already starting to do that in a lot of the small businesses that supply these office parks and business centers that are quite often women-led, the nail polish, the salons, the dry cleaners, concierge services and sandwich bars, that sort of thing. They quite often employ or owned by a lot of women. I think we have to manage it really, really carefully.

Patrick: Dorothy, all fascinating points. I appreciate your passion on this topic. We’re coming to the end of the conversation, but first off, how do our listeners find you and find your content?

Dorothy: You can come to my website, You can connect with me on LinkedIn. I think if you just put Dorothy Dalton, I’m there. I’m a bit of a Twitter addict, so you can always find me on Twitter. I’m @dorothydalton.

Patrick: Excellent. Well, Dorothy, thank you very much for spending some time with me today and for sharing your insights and those statistics that you shared with us are quite insightful. Thank you for the work that you’re doing and your passion in this area. We should get back together in about a year and have a conversation and see how the year has unfolded. Thank you again for joining and I really enjoyed the conversation

Dorothy: Thank you, and hopefully it will be better.

Patrick: I hope so too. Thanks, Dorothy.

Dorothy: Thank you.

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