For 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 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 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.
As we know, men are running most organisations today, as they have done in the past (about 95% of CEOs are male). 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 – bearing in mind that women control about 80% 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 improves almost all aspects of corporate governance and has a direct effect on improving the bottom line.
In order to demonstrate the kind of cultural bias that exists, take the process of decision-making when it comes to promoting individuals 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 transactional, expedient relationships – they understand how the current promotion system works because their gender has written the rules of the game. 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. As stated in the book How Women Work, (Avivah Wittenberg-Cox) “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. 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 required. Women tend to hold back in the belief that they need to be perfect before they can move upwards – or at least meet 80 – 90% of the requirements. I witnessed this in my own career where my male staff were often agitating to get ahead when I didn’t believe they were close to being ready, while most of the women, who were prepared and able, approached the suggestion of a promotion with some trepidation and humility at being considered. This holding back, then, isn’t a true reflection of an individual’s ability.
This is an indication of the type of challenge male managers face when they come to balancing the genders. Much of what they have learnt and are familiar with falls away, because all they know is based on male behaviour. They have to look at new ways to manage and identify talent, and to career path their staff. In identifying future leaders, 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 women 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. Further, new research from the Center for Talent Innovation finds that the dearth of women in the C-suite cannot be ascribed to lackluster ambition. Female ambition in the UK is off the charts: fully 91% of senior-level women surveyed, compared to 76% of UK men, are champing at the bit to be promoted. Many other surveys produce figures of a similar nature.
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. It follows that the point of this training is to change the behaviour of the women so that they can adjust themselves to the male way of doing things. 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 –‘command and control’ are giving way to more communicative styles, inclusiveness and teamwork (areas where women are particularly strong). This makes a balance of genders even more important so that both sets of skills are available for a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to decision-making. 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, in fact, the real test will be for men to adapt and start to understand new ways of managing. This is certainly a very different conclusion than that reached by most diversity managers in too many corporations.