International Women’s Day 2021 at NIESR: Tera Allas, CBE

The theme for International Women’s Day (IWD) 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge, asking us to “Celebrate women's achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.”.

To celebrate IWD at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), we are publishing a series of Q&A blogs written by women at NIESR to explore various topics to celebrate their achievements, including the challenges and barriers they have overcome. We hope these blogs raise awareness against bias and encourage us all to take action for equality.

 

Tera Allas is a NIESR trustee, Director of Research and Economics at McKinsey & Company, Trustee of Royal Economic Society and also Trustee of the Productivity Leadership Group (Be the Business). She was previously Director General at Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Deputy Head of Government Economic Service.

 

How long have you been affiliated with NIESR, and what does your role involve?

I am one of NIESR’s Trustees, and have had the privilege of serving on its Council of Management since 2015. Since then, we have also considerably improved the diversity of the Council, on many dimensions. There are several reasons why this is valuable: for example, to better reflect the stakeholders we serve, to improve problem solving outcomes, and to make the most of the talent pool available. Personally, I also think having a “critical mass” of different people is critical for reducing the biases and bad experiences many “diverse” individuals encounter.

In my day-job, I’m Director of Research and Economics at McKinsey & Company, where my colleagues have pioneered some of the research around gender and ethnic diversity. One of the articles that I find particularly pertinent is called “One is the loneliest number”, by our Global Managing Partner, Kevin Sneader and Lareina Yee, a Senior Partner in our San Francisco office. It was certainly my experience, when I worked in energy and climate change, that being the only young female in the room was not always comfortable, and to be honest, was often quite frustrating.

 

How do you succeed in a male-dominated environment?

My “survival strategy” then was to essentially ignore my gender and try to blend in. I found it more comfortable to make my country of birth (Finland) a differentiating factor, or make a point about my unusual first name (Tera as in terawatt-hour, which happens to be a measure of energy). I can’t say I necessarily felt discriminated against, but I did have to put up with a lot of “mansplaining” well before the term was invented… More recently, I had to politely smile through several minutes of a male person answering a question that had been expressly addressed to me.

On some level, this is a minor irritation. On the other, it can stop me from contributing to my fullest ability. And, when I think about it, such experiences accumulated over someone’s entire career spanning several decades are bound to make a difference. (I know the Pygmalion effect – people’s behaviour conforming to expectations – has been scientifically discredited; a good reason to call for more research on these effects over time.) No wonder women are under-represented in so many arenas, from board rooms, to executive teams, to – indeed – the economics profession.

So, more recently, I’ve become bolder in pointing out situations where I feel biases are acting against individuals. I have also actively supported the Discover Economics campaign, the aim of which is to increase diversity in economics. I recognise this is a lot easier to do when one is older and more “senior” – but it is also why I feel it is my obligation to contribute in this way. Partly, I have also been emboldened by the research that is now emerging about the “microaggressions” and (often unintended, but still) unfair treatment that more “diverse” individuals can be subject to.

For example, a recent study, “Gender and the Dynamics of Economics Seminars”, found that women are asked more questions during a seminar and the questions asked of women presenters are more likely to be patronizing or hostile. There is similar research about female entrepreneurs’ experiences when raising funding for their start-ups. I’m not saying we should draw black and white conclusions, given that human interactions are inherently highly complex. I would certainly welcome more research and continued debate about on all aspects of diversity.

What I am saying, though, is that I hope women – and all others who feel they are in a minority – are encouraged by the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day: “choose to challenge”.

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