As discussed previously, in order for successful gender balancing to take place, Step 1 is to have the CEO totally on board. Step 2 is for everyone in the organization to understand the business case behind gender balancing, and why it’s good for the bottom line and every other facet of the company as well. Now it’s time to look at Step 3.
This is the most difficult step, because it’s where the real action starts to take place. For gender balancing to work, nothing less than a complete change in the culture of the organisation is required. This is the reason for getting the CEO committed and for everyone in the organization to understand why gender balancing must be done. 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?
If we look at business, we will see that it’s very much an alpha male construct. Throughout the centuries, even when humanity was largely involved in agricultural pursuits, men made the 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 were almost always reporting 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.
As we know, men are running most organisations today, as they have in the past. They comprise between 70% and 100% of leadership. Consequently, most businesses operate according to a male perspective – this means that all decision-making, be it about hiring, promotion or remuneration, is heavily biased in favour of men. While this situation continues, no real progress can be made to fully utilise the skills and abilities of women. And it’s essential that we do – particularly remembering that women control 70% of total consumer spending and are now the largest pool of qualified talent available throughout the world. Not to mention that the presence of women in senior management has a direct effect on improving the bottom line.
In order to demonstrate the kind of cultural bias that exists, let’s take a look at one example – that of decision-making when it comes to promotion in a company. Generally, when men enter the workplace, they start planning their career path by identifying those individuals who can help them progress at an optimum rate. Men are very comfortable with the type of transactional “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” relationships that are integral to the current promotion system in business. This is a political or ‘power’ game that women simply aren’t comfortable playing. Women are good at forming relationships, but feel that simply aligning themselves with those that can help them advance career-wise is rather shallow, and ‘uses’ people. They still tend to believe that by putting their heads down and doing an excellent job of work they will be recognized for their efforts and promoted accordingly.
This is the crux of the type of culture change that is needed. Men naturally identify with co-workers who are more like they are – we’re all inclined to favour a ‘mini-me’ over diversity. Senior management see those new recruits who are confidently discussing their ability, involved in ferocious networking and who display an avid willingness to put any personal life on hold or to take any transfer required, as being the ones to watch and to mentor. It follows that those with their hands up seem to be the most likely ones for future management – they’re clearly the dedicated and ambitious employees. What they don’t see is that there are probably many women who aren’t playing the political games, but who are doing excellent work and putting in tremendous amounts of overtime without making a noise about it. Women generally don’t seek glory, are uncomfortable about beating the drum of their competence, and often deflect any praise for achievement onto the team. However, these same women are usually just as qualified for advancement as the men who are actively promoting themselves, if not even more so. They just don’t go about making their ambitions known in the same overt way.
What’s even harder for men to understand is that women will often not apply for internal promotions, fearing that they aren’t good enough and might meet only 80 – 90% of the desired criteria. It has been proved many times that men will apply for positions with confidence when they have only 50% of the necessary experience or ability. Women tend to hold back in the belief that they need to be perfect before they can move upwards. In fact, there are many documented situations when a manager actually suggests to a certain female employee that she accepts a promotion and she initially refuses. It might actually take some persuasion before she considers accepting. A vast number of women who now hold senior positions have indicated that they had to be urged to take on more responsibility and expressed their gratitude to the men who had convinced them to do so. Needless to say, they had all been perfectly ready and succeeded enormously.
But this gives an indication of the type of challenge male managers face when they come to gender balancing. They literally have to ‘un-learn’ everything they understand about how to manage and identify talent and to career path their staff, because all they know is based on male behaviour. They’re used to responding to behaviours that they themselves identify with and are mystified by the patterns that women often follow – and erroneously they then assume that the women aren’t capable or aren’t interested. And they certainly are interested – a survey conducted on thousands of women in 2010-2011 showed that a full 66% of women ranked a high-paying career as being ‘one of the most important’ or a ‘very important’ thing in their lives.
If these differences between the genders need to be factored into the fabric of the business, how should companies approach the cultural changes called for? The first approach on most leaders’ lips is that the women need to change – and lots of money is put aside for training and development. Unfortunately, the point of all this training is largely an attempt to help women act a bit more like … men. And that defeats the object. Consider the following example that offers a much more useful approach.
An experiment was recently conducted with 40 newly qualified surgeons. 20 were women and 20 were men. When asked to rate themselves with respect to their surgical ability, the men were by far the most positive, with over 80% scoring themselves as extremely competent. Only 35% of the female surgeons gave themselves an equivalent score. However, when the actual ratings for ability were looked at, the women were significantly better as a group with respect to their surgical skills than the men. Once again, most leaders will draw the conclusion that the female surgeons need assertiveness and confidence training! In reality, this immediate desire to ‘fix the women’ misses the point of the exercise. What was found was that the male surgeons who over-estimated their own prowess tended not to be as meticulous in their preparations. So, the real learning was for the men to emulate more of the women’s modesty and consequent diligent pre-work, so that their proficiency improved. Bravado is not the immediate solution in this type of situation.
The masculine way of managing, although it has its place, is no longer fully appropriate in today’s world – dominance, power and control are giving way to more communicative styles, inclusiveness and teamwork (areas where women are particularly strong). Gender balancing is thus essential, as it brings the skill-sets of both genders to the table and creates a far more rounded and complete method of leading. The example of how women behave with respect to carving out a career path versus the approach of men is just one aspect of how very differently the genders behave at work. So, men need to adapt and start to understand new ways of managing, but how do they do this? The answer is in becoming ‘gender bilingual’. Male managers need to understand the main ways gender differences make an impact on the workplace culture and on customer experiences.
How to start becoming gender bilingual will be the subject of Step 4 of Gender Balancing.