How do Women get their Voices Heard?

shutterstock 4It’s an age-old argument amongst women – how do we get our voices heard? Why is it that a man can say exactly the words that have just left a woman’s mouth and immediately a disregarded idea is taken seriously and forms the centre of a lively debate?  And then there’s the interrupting! Think back to the scene at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009 when Kanye West leapt onto the stage and plucked the microphone out of Taylor Swift’s hand.  It was a highly public example of a man interrupting a woman while she was trying to speak, and it happens so often that it’s now been given the tag-line manterruption by those who are conscious of the phenomenon.

The Kanye example is extreme but women will describe similar situations in boardrooms and in meetings around the world. As Soraya Chemaly wrote in her article 10 words every girl should learn: “A woman, speaking clearly and out loud, can say something that no one appears to hear, only to have a man repeat it minutes, maybe seconds later, to accolades and group discussion. Jessica Bennett states in her article How not to be Manterrupted in Meetings: “We speak up in a meeting, only to hear a man’s voice chime in louder.  We pitch an idea, perhaps too uncertainly – only to have a dude repeat it with authority. We may possess the skill, but he has the right vocal chords – which means we shut up, losing our confidence (or worse, the credit for the work).”

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, a Wharton Business School professor, wrote recently in the New York Times about what they describe as the perils of “speaking while female”.  Some of their findings have been tabled as follows:  male senators speak significantly more than their junior colleagues, while female senators do not; male executives who speak more often than their peers are deemed more competent (by 10%), while female executives who speak up are considered less (14% less); and that in the workplace women speak less and are interrupted more.  “We’ve both seen it happen again and again,” Sandberg and Grant write. “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea.”

A good example can be drawn from scientist Ben Barres who started life as Barbara Barres before undergoing transgender surgery.  In Ms Chemaly’s article she describes how Ben Barres wrote publicly about his experiences, first as a woman and, later in life, as a male. As a female student at MIT, Barbara Barres was told by a professor after solving a particularly difficult math problem, “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.” Several years after, as Ben Barres, he gave a well-received scientific speech and he overhead a member of the audience say, “His work is much better than his sister’s.” Most notably, he concluded that one of the major benefits of being male was that he could now “even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

Ms.Chemaly’s article also highlights the following:  “ …male doctorsinvariably interrupt patients when they speak, especially female patients, but patients rarely interrupt doctors in return. Unless the doctor is a woman. When that is the case, she interrupts far less and is herself interrupted more . This is also true of senior managers in the workplace. Male bosses are not frequently talked over or stopped by those working for them, especially if the employees are women; however, female bosses are routinely interrupted by their male subordinates.”  In fact, in male-dominated problem solving groups including boards, committees and legislatures, men speak 75% more than women, with negative effects on decisions reached.

Why do women’s voices need to be heard?

For a start, it is worth repeating that women make up 80% of worldwide consumer spending, so listening to the voices of the overwhelming majority of a company’s customers is an idea worth considering.  In addition, women comprise the majority of qualified talent worldwide and the divide between them and the male pool of talent is growing.  This means that women will be wooed more and more by companies in the future, and these businesses had better be providing an environment where their point of view is heard and respected.  Not to mention the fact that having women in senior positions in business has been shown to improve every aspect of corporate governance.  Also, having only one woman on a board of directors compared to those companies with all male-boards results in  a large increase in profitability according to a wealth of studies looking at every aspect of sales and return on investment .

Barbara Annis, in her book written with John Gray, Work with Me: The 8 Blind-spots consultingbetween Men and Women in Business states the following: “It’s undeniable that women bring a different perspective and a different value to the workplace. If men understood that another perspective is always the best way to find the best plan of action, and if they would realize that more viewpoints always bring greater success, they would more likely embrace those differences.”

And, finally, business these days works increasingly in multi-cultural, multi-national teams across the globe.  As quoted in a recent New York Times article: Why Some Teams are Smarter than Others: “though we may still idolize the charismatic leader or creative genius, almost every decision of consequence is made by a group”. In the same article, it was found that group IQ has little to do with the intelligence of the team.  What makes a difference is adding women to the team.  “Teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not “diversity” (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women.”

With all this overwhelming evidence, can there be any doubt that women hold the key to future wealth, prosperity and good governance?  How crucial it then becomes that their voices are heard and heeded.

How then to solve the problem?

The crux of the matter is that men and women have completely different modes of communication.  Presently, the method used almost exclusively in business is the masculine style.  Barbara Annis’s book provides results of wide research into the differing styles between the genders.  While 98% of both men and women consider communication to be very important, 82% of men feel they are communicating well enough to women and believe they are being understood; while only 52% of women feel fully heard by men.

Owing to this obvious divide, and the frustration women feel at manterrupting, much has been written about trying to get women’s ideas heard and respected.  The solutions have been many and varied.  Before discussing their merit, here are a few of them:

  • The ‘no Kanye rule’ – tell men to stop interrupting
  • say: “I just said that”
  • help men to see that their unconscious bias is precluding them from listening to women with their full attention
  • get a male colleague to support your idea when you raise it in a meeting
  • speak with more confidence and avoid a voice inflection of uncertainty at the end of a sentence
  • encourage men to give credit where it’s due as it will make them look good in the long run
  • learn the art of interruption yourself
  • practice a deeper tone of voice for more authority – leadership and authority are associated with masculine tones
  • And my all time favourite – speak louder!

westonaria 18While all of these recommendations might have some merit in different situations, I don’t think any go nearly far enough, because they simply continue to deal with the status quo.  Any gender balancing expert will tell you that, in order for the maximum benefits to be achieved by bringing more women into decision-making positions, the whole culture of a company has to change.

At present, if you google ‘being heard in a meeting’, what comes across is almost a manual for entering a battleground.  Endless articles describe how this is a crucial time to showcase your talents – how you need to be fully prepared to catch the eye of a senior manager, so it’s essential that your ideas are heard and recognition given to your suggestions.  In fact, the advice given is a litany of partisanship, secret diplomacy, unilateral action and lobbying, which is very much the way that modern affairs are characterized.  It’s certainly reminiscent of how many parliaments and congresses operate, riddled with contentious and competitive behaviour, which is a poor way to conduct governance.  What’s also obvious is that the foundation of this manner of debating and negotiating is a masculine construct, and how very badly it needs the balance of the feminine.

So, in the 21st Century, the very premise of ‘the meeting’ needs a long overdue overhaul.  Ideally, shouldn’t a business meeting be a search for solutions by putting a variety of minds together, by getting everyone’s opinions on the table and uncovering a resolution that is best for the clients, the environment and the company? Surely we should be fostering a milieu that encourages participation and kindles creative thinking? It’s clear that the opposite situation is true at the moment.  Many people are terrified in meetings – scared to voice an opinion for fear that their idea may be shouted down – while others are preparing for an Oscar winning performance, garnering support for their ideas in advance and ready to do battle with all challengers.  The fact that many companies still refer to meeting rooms as ‘war rooms’ gives an indication of the out-dated way in which many meetings are conducted.

There is a solution and it involves changing the nature of meetings to one of true consultation as opposed to one of competition and vying for attention. Consultation in its truest form means that egos get checked at the door. The intention of the meeting should be to find the best solution and path of action, not to make or break an individual’s career.  Real consultation requires a well-trained and capable facilitator who will ensure that all voices are heard, and who controls those who might dominate the conversation unnecessarily.  It also means that every idea put forward becomes a group idea – to be elaborated on and expanded on or put aside.  Of course, it is crucial that no individual leaves the meeting bragging that his/her idea was adopted.  Likewise, once the group has reached a decision, even if consensus was not obtained and a vote was taken, nay-sayers shouldn’t leave the room passing on the opinion to all and sundry that they weren’t in favour of the final outcome.  Consultation is group-think in its highest form, and every decision needs to be owned by the group.

There are many other factors, of course.  Meetings are complex and decision-making is a Boardroom 14highly developed skill.  The right mix of people needs to be in the room so that a diversity of opinions is heard and the group must delay a decision until it feels that it is properly informed on all aspects of the matter. The facilitator needs to be able to draw out ideas from the quieter members – it is estimated that one third of people are introverts, and yet they may have the very ideas that most need to be contributed.  Also, all employees need to be trained in consultation skills.  It’s not an easy skill to learn because it truly requires a subjugation of ego and self-promotion, and a complete immersion in what is best for the team.  And the facilitator needs to lead the group away from being dazzled by those who are overly confident to listen to those who may have the quieter voices but could well be more competent.

Mastering true consultation is challenging, but everyone can learn it.  I’ve watched it work over several years in many, many situations around the world, and the decision-making improves as the consulting expertise matures. Participants learn to use wisdom and improve their eloquence, so that ideas are concise and pertinent.  Moral courage is still required as ideas need to be expressed but, when a facilitator will not allow ridicule or rancor, it’s amazing how many excellent ideas are expressed by people who would normally fear to speak.  And this largely relates to those 52% of women who feel that they aren’t heard or are over-ridden by louder, more forceful voices.  How wonderful it would be if current communication and decision-making methods could become more constructive and collaborative rather than self-serving and antagonistic.  A great benefit would be that women would finally be heard – and how desperately we need the input of those voices.

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Why is ‘being beautiful’ still the dominant measure for women?

hugh hefner

A few years ago, there was an upheaval in the media about the new girlfriend of a famous sportsman.  The reason for her vilification in the press was simply that she wasn’t good looking enough – because, after all, the sportsman in question was rich and famous and ‘could do so much better’.  In fact, she was extremely attractive, but just not traffic-stoppingly beautiful enough to pacify her detractors.  Not for a moment did anyone consider her character, her intelligence, her sense of humour, the values the two might share or the foundation of life goals that they might have had in common.  It was just based on her appearance – and in the eyes of the media, she didn’t make the grade.   A similar standard is almost never applied to men, which is why the array of beautiful wives and girlfriends associated with Donald Trump or Hugh Hefner, for example, are never questioned as to their choice.  That’s considered to be how the world works: rich and famous men = beautiful women as the reward.

We’ve completed the first decade of the 21st Century and the feminist movement is accelerating into its object 5third wave, and yet it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  There has been some progress in the way that women are viewed and view themselves. This shift is based on the reality that women now comprise the greatest talent pool in the world and are largely better educated than men, that they control about 75% of the global spend, and that the wealth in the hands of women is increasing dramatically.  But, in other ways, the perception of women has remained static or has even gone backwards.

Perhaps the best way to assess our current situation would be to look at the media, particularly the advertising industry, which is where most of us receive and are shaped by social messages. The media industry remains staggeringly under the control of a single demographic – men – which largely explains why the social changes and education we need for progress are slow to be achieved.

How far have we actually come?

equ9In the 1950’s the media institutionalized sexism – wives were completely controlled and influenced by their husbands.  Most references to women revolved around the kitchen and creating a beautiful home, and products designed for women were marketed as being necessary if they wanted to impress these husbands.  It was in 1963 that Betty Frieden (The Feminine Mystique) started to urge women to seek new roles and responsibilities.  She encouraged women to find their own personal and professional identities, rather than being defined by the outside, male-dominated society.  It started the second wave of feminism, and certainly great gains have been made, but still the tyranny of the media is holding women hostage.  While the image of the Stepford Wife is now laughable to many and the over-riding message to women is to find their own identity, there persists an even greater focus on being beautiful at the same time.  Looking great and being desirable to men is still portrayed as your fast-forward to a happy and successful life. Continue reading

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Women’s Day Celebration

The 9th August is designated ‘Women’s Day’ in South Africa.  Even more significantly, for several years now, the entire month of August has been deemed ‘Women’s Month’. There’s a powerful reason why the holiday came about.  It commemorates the march that took place in 1956 when about 20 000 women took to the streets of Pretoria to protest the special identification documents (the ‘pass’)  that all black South Africans were forced to carry.  It was an astounding demonstration of the power of women to stand-up against injustice.  The group of women comprised all race groups – they were mothers, wives, sisters and daughters – joined in a show of peaceful protest, of female solidarity and inner fortitude against the tyranny of apartheid.  It was inspiring and something to which we have been paying homage since 1994. As the women sang on that day: ‘Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock’.

Where are we today?

The good news is that South Africa has one of the best constitutions in the world, and the ruling party seems serious about creating equality of the genders.  As a result, according to the Global Gender Gap, we rank 7th in the world with respect to women’s representation in the public sector, which is not a bad achievement.  This is where the good news ends. When it comes to education, we rank at 87th position; with regard to health and survival, we drop to 103rd place.

women3Over and above this comes the really bad news, which is part of the reason that an entire month has been introduced to put as much emphasis as possible on considering and addressing the plight of women.  South Africa has almost the worst rape statistics in the world.  Here is the chilling breakdown.

  • An estimated 500,000 rape cases take place in the country every year.
  • In 2000, the United Nations Office on Crimes and Drugs ranked South Africa first for rapes per capita.  Of the 4 000 women questioned in Johannesburg, 1 in 3 had been raped.
  • There are conflicting stats as to whether a woman is raped every 26 or 36 seconds, but either way it’s an appalling situation.
  • More than 25% of a sample of 1,738 South African men from the Kwa-Zulu Natal and Eastern Cape Provinces admitted to raping someone when anonymously questioned; of these, nearly half said they had raped more than one person, according to a non-peer reviewed policy brief issued by the Medical Research Council (MRC).
  • Nearly three out of four men who admitted rape stated they had first forced a woman or girl into sex before the age of 20, and nearly one in ten admitted to doing so before the age of 10.
  • It is estimated that over 50% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime and that only 1 in 9 rapes are reported.
  • It is also estimated that 14% of perpetrators of rape are convicted in South Africa.
  • In 1997, violence against women was added as one of the priority crimes under the National Crime Prevention Strategy; nevertheless, the rates of reported rape, sexual abuse of children and domestic violence continue to rise.

Continue reading

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Outrage over the panel of men at the Global Summit of Women!

The picture to the right seems relatively benign doesn’t it?  But it has drawn a storm of outrage from women across the globe, Women's summitbeing re-tweeted endlessly with angry captions such as: “A picture speaks a thousand words”, and “mansplaining”.  To put it in context, as can be seen by the background posters, the photograph was taken at this year’s Global Summit of Women.  Thus, the underlying sentiment is that men have no place in discussing women’s issues; that their mere presence elicits indignation.  I couldn’t disagree more strongly, so let me explain why.

 To start with, the horrified tweets brought to mind an analogy of my own distress some 20 years ago on a different but somehow related matter.  My company was involved in conducting an in-depth strategic plan and, as one of the executives, my task was to do scenario planning of the political future of the country – to look at the best, worst and most likely case scenarios for the next 5 to 10 years.  Now I am a South African, and this was during the late 80’s, so we were living through a fascinating time of dramatic possibilities, but also through a period of enormous uncertainty.  Clarity for a 5 to 10 year period was something only to be dreamt of.

Nevertheless, I consulted the most prominent political expert I could find; someone who was as objective as he could be under the circumstances.  There was only one certainty he could offer, and that was that change in the country would not come through nelsonmthe opposition party.  His best-case scenario was that the then President would retire through ill health, that FW de Klerk would come to power and that he, along with the ruling Nationalist Party, would willingly hand over power to the majority of South Africans (as opposed to the white minority) led by Nelson Mandela.  This was not what I wanted to hear.  As a staunch opponent of apartheid and as a then political activist I wanted to hear only that the opposition party would somehow sweep into power (something they’d failed to do for 48 years) and would bring an end to a loathed system.  I hated the thought that the ruling party might be given any credit for bringing about change.  I was even prepared to accept the worst case scenario that the country would collapse into a civil war and that change would come about that way, rather than to accept that those in power should be allowed any part in effecting a transformation.  Why should they be given any glory, I argued? – they were the ones who’d put the system in place and had derived the benefits. Continue reading

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Save the Planet – put more women in charge!

carteret islands 3“The day has finally come – a critical landmark in the saga of global climate change has just occurred, and hardly anyone has noticed. The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea have become the world’s first entire community to be displaced by climate change. They’re the first official refugees of global warming and they’re packing up their lives to move out of the way of ever-rising waters that threaten to overtake their homes and crops. The island they call home will be completely underwater by 2015.” So writes Brian Merchant in response to the story that first broke a few years ago, suggesting that these islanders could be the first who’d be forced out of their homes.

Ironically, even though the evacuation has taken place, the story passed with barely a carteret islandsmurmur in the press. While only about 2,000 people have been affected, the loss of their homes and way of life is still a tragic occurrence.  “And this is certain to be merely the first such community to be forced into such action—with sea levels continuing their steady rise, and a distinct lack of meaningful action from governments of rich, polluting nations, more helpless communities are sure to be displaced.”

How does climate change link in with gender balance?

An overview of any social or business approach in the world today can be defined by the 4 Ps  – People, Planet, Profits and Purpose (purpose is a newly added ‘P’ – typical of a 21st Climatecentury change of approach).  Throughout the world if we look at the main thrust of business to-date, it is clear that profits to shareholders have overwhelmingly taken preference over the other 3 Ps.  There’s much lip-service on every company website about community service initiatives, but there is also enough evidence to show that many corporations put aside their scruples to deliver these profits.  As Plan B writes: “We read about short cuts that lead to oil spills, overworked and overtired employees that cost societies trillions of dollars in fatigue related accidents, cheap toys that cause sickness in children, poorly built schools that collapse, greed in the executive suites – on and on and on.”

Traditionally, corporations have always been headed by men – even in 2014, 95% of CEOs are male, along with 85% of directors.  The strong emphasis on profits before people and the planet is a cornerstone of the alpha-male construct that has driven business.  Consequently, corporate greed and the lack of concern for the environment in the pursuit of profits have led to the present parlous state of our planet.  When a leading country like the US will not ratify the Kyoko Protocol (Canada did but then withdrew) for fear of the damage it might do to the country’s economy, we can see that priorities are completely out of line.

Women are ‘greener’ than men?

climate 2Research, however, shows that women rate people, planet and purpose higher than profits.  In May 2011, Greenbiz wrote:  “According to a large number of studies women are more green than men in both their attitudes and their actions.”   Similar results came following an international survey by Synovate, proving that women are greener than men.  It has emerged that women are far more concerned about preserving the ecology of the planet and want to invest in companies that show their commitment to practices that won’t harm the environment any further. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t concerned with profits, any more than men don’t care about people or the planet – but it does show an important ranking of priorities.

Here is a summary of the many different areas of research that make the point that women are better for the environment than their male counterparts:

  • According to Hansa-GCR, women decision makers in business are more environmentally-conscious than men. The Center for Women’s Business Research (CWBR) released a brief called the “Environmental Consumerism Among Women Business Owners,” that reported the environmental friendliness of a product does have a moderate to major influence on the purchasing habits of 77% of women decision-makers in business.
  • Women are more likely than men to buy eco-oriented or recyclable products, according to an international study. This is significant because research indicates that women make at least 75% of home purchase decisions.
  • The Business News Daily wrote in December 2010, that “men are nearly twice as likely climate 3to believe that buying products marketed as green makes no difference.” Men are also much less likely to check that their purchases come from companies that brand their products as “ethical” than women (30 percent versus 42 percent) and twice as likely to believe that the green movement is just a marketing ploy (16 percent versus 8 percent).
  • Women in industrialized countries are more likely to buy ecologically friendly and organic foods, more likely to recycle and more interested in efficient energy use, according to research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And a survey of research by investigators at Stanford, Ohio State University and the Associated Press found women perceived greater vulnerability to risks and were more willing to pay higher income taxes and gasoline prices to protect the environment.
  • According to a 2010 study by Tiller, women are more likely than men to experience “green guilt,” as the poll calls it–41% versus just 27% of men.
  • The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found women are less likely than men to support environmental spending cuts and are less sympathetic to business when it comes to environmental regulation. They also have more positive feelings about environmental activists and are concerned about environmental risks to health, especially locally.
  • A new study from the United Nations confirms that women have a lower carbon footprint and are better for the world’s future health.
  • As for protection of the planet and people, it has been proved that women are more invested in good corporate governance, complying with safety standards, obeying legal requirements, are committed to better adherence to codes of conduct, and pay more attention to minimizing and controlling risk. 

climate 4This is just some of the evidence that people and the planet will be better off in the hands of women – but in order for this to have an effect on the behaviour of big business, it will be necessary for women to be equally represented in positions of authority.  By 2020, women will also comprise two-thirds of university graduates in the developed world, so there is no shortage of skilled women available to move into these senior posts.  Of interest, also by 2020, millennials will form half the workforce and they appear to be keen to work for purpose-driven leaders with ‘A Better World’ agenda, rather than corporations focused purely on the bottom line.

It is important to note that all these surveys include generalisations based on statistics – we can all think of many men who are intimately concerned with the planet and making the climate 5workplace better for people.  Nonetheless, when talking about percentages and overall numbers, women as a gender are clearly more concerned about the environment than men at large.  It has been suggested that this could be that men don’t understand the consequences of their actions. A recent analysis of eight years of Gallup Poll data suggests that U.S. women have greater scientific knowledge of climate change than men, and women also express slightly greater concern about this threat.  If it is just a need for better education, it will be most helpful when women are given a voice that men will hear and respond to.  This is where the ‘female factor’ will radically alter the business landscape, with gender balancing being something not only to be wished for, but to be welcomed with gratitude as a true panacea to our current ills.

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Putting women into top positions won’t happen without changing the culture of the organization

comparisonFor gender balancing to work, nothing less than a complete change in the culture of an organisation is required.  This is the reason all gender experts advocate that the CEO needs to be committed to the process.  Any change in a business culture is hard, but the kind of social change needed for balancing the genders is enormous.  It involves re-looking at every aspect of the business to uncover where unconscious bias towards women exists, and rebuilding a different culture that supports both genders.

Why is such a comprehensive change necessary?

Most business cultures are very much an alpha male construct.  Throughout the centuries, even when humanity was largely involved in agricultural pursuits, men made Equ1the rules and were in charge.  This was equally true when the industrial revolution occurred.  Women have always worked in factories and even in the mines (children as well, until laws were passed forbidding it), but they reported to men who held all the decision-making positions.

Into the 20th century, women started to enter the workplace in increasing numbers, but were strictly curtailed as to the positions they held.  The majority of women became teachers, nurses or secretaries.  In the US, women work as secretaries more than any other position – this was true according to the Census in 1950, and was still true in the 2010 Census.  When you consider that women in the US are now more highly educated than men, holding more primary degrees, as well as more Masters and PhD degrees, it’s astonishing that so little progress has been made after 60 years. Continue reading

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Why is gender balancing happening so slowly?

glass ceiling 7We’re 14 years into the new millennium.  The economic empowerment of women, something The Economist called “arguably the biggest social change of our times” (2010), is a major factor in a fast-changing landscape. And yet the representation of women in decision-making positions in both the public and private sectors is still limping along at a surprisingly slow pace. 

Most organisations are now aware that there is a powerful business case supporting the need to bring vastly greater numbers of women into senior decision making positions.  They know that women represent 60% of university graduates worldwide and that 70% of consumer-spending is in the hands of women.  They probably are even aware that almost all aspects of corporate governance are improved with the presence of women on the Executive Committees or on the Board of Directors.  They might even have learned that any ratio relating to profits and return on investment is enhanced with even the presence of one woman director versus a company that has a 100% male Board.

And yet, there is still almost no progress being made in balancing the genders at the top Boardroom 13levels of decision-making.  The figures for the US for 2013 show that no progress was made at all.  The Nordic countries lead the way but, for the world in general, almost no gains have been made for the last decade.  How can this be?

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, in a recent article, quotes a report published by King’s College London (sponsored by KPMG) which states : “The lack of women in an organisation is a management failure.” This is wider than just a lack of CEO commitment to change.  It also encompasses a failure by top leadership to truly understand the scope and scale of the organizational change required to ensure that this balancing of the genders takes place.

westonaria 18Balancing the genders in society is going to be a major shift from our current practices.  It  will require changing the conversation and culture of business, and this won’t happen without tremendous commitment, effort, and training.  Even knowing the details of the business case , which shows the value of having more women ‘at the top’, is clearly insufficient.  This is probably because the solution requires so intense a change in all aspects of business.  No less than a profound questioning of the assumptions underpinning the social systems that currently exist is needed.

The approach that has existed so far – to ‘fix’ women or to somehow mould them to fit into the male-dominated culture that currently exists – will not work, and is of no benefit to society anyway.  What is truly necessary is for men and women to work together to build a whole new social order – comprising both the business and personal lives.  The lack of progress, then, is not surprising.  It’s this enormous task that seems to have eluded the leadership of companies to date.

It appears there’s a divergence of thinking here.  Some leaders are truly aware of the size influenceof the change needed and are perhaps overwhelmed by the task.  Others clearly haven’t grasped the complex nature of what is needed, and so continue to provide band-aids to a wound that is too deep and too serious to be healed with superficial surface measures.

From the companies I have researched in South Africa, the latter is the most likely scenario.  The efforts that a few businesses are making towards balancing the genders can be summed up as follows:

  • A lip-service commitment to gender balancing, resulting in a directive to HR to make inroads into balancing the work-force
  • An over-arching opinion is adopted that meritocracy is the answer.  Sooner or later, women will start to exhibit the skills and behaviours required and they will naturally Boardroom 6rise into senior positions.  In other words, the best way to treat a woman is to treat her just like a man.  This approach pays no attention to the differences between the two genders – it simply repeats the status quo.  Should a handful of women manage to rise up the ranks through their sheer skill and determination, they would still find themselves dealing with a male-driven culture that doesn’t take into consideration the tremendous benefits a business can derive from incorporating the qualities that the feminine brings.  Over time, this is what leads to the revolving door syndrome as qualified women leave in their droves.
  • The appointment of a junior person in a full-time capacity (usually a woman) whose job consulting 3is to research the skills required versus those available (for example, if more women are needed in a technical division, so ascertain the availability of these skills amongst women and to strive to acquire them), and to urge various departments to give preference to women in the recruitment process.  While this step is important and has certainly made a contribution, it is effective only at junior management to middle management levels.  These levels have improved enormously throughout the world in recent years.  However, no impact has been made on the General Management, Executive Committee and Board of Director levels.  Those junior staff appointees are committed and striving, but have no impact on the true circles of influence in the company.
  • The tasking of a senior woman in the organisation to head up the  task of gender-balancing.  Once again, this step falls into the ‘fixing the women’ category.  What is being implied is, if a certain woman has succeeded, she’ll be able to help other women conform to the required behaviours that will help them get ahead.  Often, no budget is given and the woman appointed is expected to make this transition happen in her own time.  The whole premise is flawed in that it comes from the viewpoint that gender-balancing is a women’s issue and that women will start to succeed if they could just learn to modify their behaviours and act in a different way or with a different mind-set.
  • A ‘women’s group’ is formed – inspirational speakers (women) are invited and the group may even get together on a monthly basis to discuss challenges etc.  The fact that this tactic has never had any impact on improving the representation of women at senior levels is not surprising.  Once again, the company approach is to isolate women and to treat gender-balancing as something that will come about once women ‘get-it’.  Men tend to disregard these women’s groups, other than to deride them as ‘whine and wine clubs’.  A functioning women’s network, on the other hand, that would hold senior management in a company to account is a different thing altogether from what exists in most businesses.

These approaches will never achieve a significant or sustainable increase in women at senior decision-making levels.  For those CEOs and Boards of Directors who are sincere about trying to increase the representation by women at these levels, they are perhaps bemused as to why their efforts aren’t working.  They don’t see that what is often happening in business can be likened to an all-male club opening its doors and expecting women to come in, adapt and thrive.  I remember  one of these men-only ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ because I used to visit my father’s club several years ago.  Women were allowed to enter only through the side entrance, never the main door, and there were strict rules as to how we could behave and where we were allowed to walk.  Of course, we had to be escorted at all times, only being left to our own devices when we needed to find a restroom.  This was only 25 years ago, but it seems so silly and outdated now.  All-male clubs are almost all gone now – and many died anyway, even when they opened their doors to women members in desperation.

The rules of society have changed, and yet we continue to try to repeat old patterns, wondering why we’re not getting different results. Businesses are still clinging to many archaic and prejudiced ways of operating, and continue to be surprised that women aren’t thriving!  Patterns of decision-making, net-working, self-promotion, career advancement, training, production, product planning, target-setting and many other every day processes are almost always fashioned along the lines of the over-riding masculine culture.  This has to change – not just because women have the skills that are needed in business but because society needs it.  The masculine dominated pattern of profits before people and the planet has led us to the perilous state we’re now in.  As one article recently stated : “A business and political world predominantly led by men has brought us to today’s global juncture.”  This is not to paint all businesses with the same brush, but it’s clear that a change is needed. Recogising the scope of the change is essential before any real progress will be able to be made.




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