Jo Yarker is director of Affinity Health at Work and leads the professional doctorate in organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. Jo’s work focuses on supporting people to thrive at work, particularly when they are experiencing times of challenge or vulnerability. Across her academic and consultancy roles, she job-shares with Rachel Lewis.
“There is a common assumption that when we talk of women on boards, they consider non-executive roles. We need to do much more – across all levels of the business – to change the way women are supported to progress to board level.”
Falling in love with research
I am an occupational psychologist, specialising in work, health and wellbeing. I studied psychology at undergraduate level.
As an eager new graduate starting a job in learning and development, I was surprised to see so many people around me looking pretty unimpressed with their lot, despite holding in sought after jobs, working in beautiful spaces and earning well. I can remember thinking: “Why are some people happy and thriving at work, while others are not?” This has taken me on a long fascinating journey to help people lead better working lives.
I completed an MSc in Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Nottingham and fell in love with research, and so I stayed on and completed a PhD in applied psychology.
That was nearly 20 years ago and since then I have held academic posts at a number of universities and combined this with running Affinity Health at Work, a research and consultancy organisation with my colleague Dr Rachel Lewis. We job-share across both our roles – meaning we can both have dual careers and juggle busy family lives.
Rachel and I lead the professional doctorate in occupational psychology programme at Birkbeck, University of London, and so our day is shared between speaking to students and helping them to develop and refine their research.
All of our students are experienced practitioners and may be leading talent, selection or leadership programmes in their own organisation, so it is always fascinating work. A number of our students have a keen interest in developing evidence-based approaches to support and promote equality in the workplace.
We also conduct our own research and have recently been working with a range of public and private organisations such as the Department for Work and Pensions, International SOS and a number of universities to promote healthy workplaces.
Behavioural economics/nudge theory: What is it?
Behavioural economics considers the effects of psychological, emotional, cognitive, social and cultural factors of our decision-making. It suggests that when we make decisions, we are influenced by a complex mix of factors and we can usefully consider these when thinking about how we change people’s behaviour.
Based on the work of Richard Thaler, nudge theory suggests that we can use positive reinforcement to influence decision-making.
How this theory can improve gender balance
Behavioural Insights Team research for Zurich UK suggests that behaviour can be ‘nudged’ if we make the desirable behaviour easy, attractive, social and timely than the less preferred option. We can apply this framework to so many things (although we often don’t).
If we look at the people processes across the organisation we could influence selection, onboarding processes, team management practices, progression opportunities and promotion decisions.
We could apply these principles to parental leave and make it easier and more attractive for men to share parental leave and take up flexible working. There are many opportunities that we are not currently leveraging.
The research carried out by the Behavioural Insights Team used a field intervention design to examine the changes in the proportion of employees working part-time, of female applicants and of female promotions. It used organisational data gathered pre and post-intervention, and this is really important as it shows us that we can use existing data management systems as part of our research process. The intervention was designed to ‘nudge’ an increase in female applications.
The components of the intervention included advertising new positions as open to part-time or jobs shares as well as full time by default, an inclusive statement was included at the top of the job ad, and managers were offered training in managing flexible teams.
The findings were really encouraging: 78% of job adverts complied to the new framing, and while there was no increase in the overall number of part-time workers, female applicants to all roles and to senior roles increased six percentage points from the pre-intervention baseline.
Closing the gender gap
One area that came through in our research with board chairs was the need for women progressing to senior roles to have international or broader experience outside of their current role.
For women, particularly those who are the primary carer, it can be a challenge to gain this experience without disrupting the family.
Applying nudge approaches to secondments is one area that could benefit mid-career women: explicitly offering short-term or job-share secondments. Another is addressing the balance by nudging more men to adopt flexible working.
Changing the perception of women
There is a common assumption that when we talk of women on boards, they consider non-executive roles. We need to do much more – across all levels of the business – to change the way women are supported to progress to board level.
We also worked with Lendlease to trial a flexible work intervention and found that this not only improved the reported work-life balance and health and wellbeing of staff, but that men benefited and changed their work routines. Providing opportunities for all benefits everyone.
Some vacation and then back to work!
After a few months of juggling work and home-schooling, I am looking forward to switching off over the holidays with my family so that I can come back refreshed in the new year.
We have a number of exciting projects lined up for 2021. Through our work, health and wellbeing research consortium we are tracking how workplace wellbeing practices are changing within organisations. There is a lot of research that points to working women being disadvantaged by the impact of the pandemic, but we are hopeful that those organisations that have prioritised wellbeing are also prioritising equality as they navigate these difficult times.