Large, established organizations are finally starting to accept that gender imbalances are a business problem. Yes, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella recently lit up the blogosphere with his unfortunate suggestion that women should not ask for pay raises. (He quickly apologised.) But gaffes like his are increasingly out of step with the mainstream. This summer, Google publicized the gender balance of its workforce, and vowed to improve. This led other large tech companies to do the same. Leaders at Harvard Business School have admitted the school has not been hospitable to women, and publicized their efforts to improve in a front-page New York Times story. These and other changes are evidence of a steady and growing recognition that today’s gender imbalance are a business and leadership issue.
We are literally – and collectively — changing our minds. Slowly but surely, the shift from the 20th century view that “gender imbalance is a women’s problem” to the more 21st century “gender imbalance is a leadership challenge” is beginning to take root.
It is now important to design the right response. To maximise this moment, leaders need to proceed strategically:
First, lead the charge. The number one driver of better gender balance in large corporations is leadership. If leaders don’t get it, buy it, and sell it, no one else can make it happen. Leaders must be the change they want to see (not just call for change). This requires a thorough understanding of the issues and how to address them.
The best CEOs publicly commit to high-performance meritocracies that recognise and serve a more gender balanced economy and customer base. Acknowledge publicly that you are not yet there (many of your managers probably assume that you are). A bit of mea culpa is not out of place here – vulnerability is increasingly becoming a leadership competence. After 20 years of companies focusing most of their well-meaning but ineffective efforts on fixing women (think assertiveness training and women’s networking events) it is helpful to acknowledge that you’ll be making a shift in approach. And not just by throwing training at mid-level managers. Many managers are bored or skeptical about gender initiatives, so leaders need to prove that they themselves are convinced. Commit to creating a balanced business. Sell this vision. Enthusiastically. Repeatedly. Repeatedly.
Cisco’s John Chambers is a good example. After meeting with Sheryl Sandberg, he admitted that he hadn’t quite “gotten it,” and communicated this admission widely to his employees. “While I have always considered myself sensitive to and effective on gender issues in the workplace, my eyes were opened in new ways and I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make the progress we haven’t made in the last decade… while I believe I am relatively enlightened, I have not consistently walked the talk … What we have been doing hasn’t worked, and it is time to adjust.”
Unilever’s Paul Polman has simply communicated that the company will never achieve its growth and sustainability targets without getting the gender balance right. “Unless we recognise the critical role that women play and unless we involve women more directly in developing solutions, then we are destined never to fulfil our potential.”
Google was the first Silicon Valley tech company to come clean on the reality of its gender situation, admitting that it was wrong to avoid transparency. “We’ve always been reluctant to publish numbers about the diversity of our workforce at Google. We now realize we were wrong, and that it’s time to be candid about the issues. Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it’s hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.”
Whatever the exact language, the CEO and the core of the company has to take responsibility. The problem is that many CEOs delegate the issue to a Head of Diversity, most of whom don’t even report directly into them. It takes courage and years of proactive, public pushing from the top to make gender balance happen. You get what you envision.
Second, explain why it matters. Many people think the business case for gender balance is now so obvious that it doesn’t require repetition. In my experience, this is the crux of the challenge. Most managers simply don’t understand the complexity of the issue, and even those who do are not usually ready to preach it to others. Each company needs its own, fact-based explanation of how this relates to the bottom line. Leaders need to make the link to their own businesses, in a convinced and convincing way. You need to make the case and explain why gender balance is an urgent global business imperative – just as explaining “why” is important for any key business initiative. Then get all your leaders to repeat the same, aligned message with their teams.
When Marijn Dekkers became CEO of Bayer — and the first non-German CEO of a DAX 30 company — he knew he’d have to explain why an extremely successful, 150-year-old company might want to change. And he did, over and over, in a variety of media, making it very clear that diversity was a priority.
“One of our most important current innovations,” he wrote, “may not be technological. It may be our skill in managing new talent and market realities. The better we can understand and connect with customers (and potential customers) the stronger we will be… Evolving the balance of nationalities and genders in BAYER’s management is not a management fad. Nor is it the result of German government quotas. It’s simply good business. We want to look like, sound like and anticipate our customers’ needs.”
Beware of purely ethical arguments around diversity and fairness. While this works for many managers, many others will argue that the lack of gender balance is simply due to women’s choices, and has nothing to do with fairness. In our experience (although ethicists struggle with this) a business-driven reason for balance is essential to garner more broadly-based support. This is especially true in countries that are still culturally attached to highly differentiated gender roles.
Finally, build skills. Working across genders, like working across cultures, is a management skill. It requires education, awareness, and the ability to differentiate between real differences and unconscious biases. Help managers understand the current situation in their organizations. What’s the current gender balance among customers? Among employees? At different levels and across different functions?
Most companies also need to spend time educating managers to understand the different behaviors, preferences and concerns of men and women – as customers and as employees. They need to see both the impact of those differences – and how to leverage them to create value. Make a distinction between actual differences and stereotypes. Managers need to understand why both genders get judged negatively for behaving outside of traditional gender roles – and why both genders unconsciously associate leadership with masculine traits. We need to stop fixing the women, but we should also avoid starting to fix the men.
When done constructively, men and women enjoy building skills that immediately unlock opportunities with customers, employees, and stakeholders. Inviting people to courses on “bias” or “stereotyping” is not the best way to prime them for working well together — so seek to be eye-opening and positive, putting your focus on generating opportunities that blind spots may once have concealed.
This does not need to take years; it does not take a global cultural change initiative for any manager to balance their own team. What it does take is changes to business systems (career management, leadership criteria, product and service design and delivery).
Many companies want to simply jump in with skill building – often framed as bias training — without having leadership take a strong stance, and without explaining why this matters to the overall health of the business. But unconscious bias isn’t always the problem. Entrenched business systems often are. And unless leaders decide on the change they want – and explain why it matters—those systems won’t budge.
The risk of investing in training before steps 1 and 2 are in place is that people feel they have done a huge amount (and invested time and money) and it just doesn’t work. That creates a whole new layer of gender fatigue for the future.
Leadership, language, and skill are extraordinarily important in developing effective (and accountable) agents of change. Most managers are very willing to change if you equip and empower them in the right way. And of course, if you then celebrate and promote the ones that are walking the talk – there is no clearer incentive to change than promoting the people who have built balanced teams and unlocked new business opportunities.
Again, this does not require a huge culture shift. It requires the momentum that comes from a strategic push towards a clear vision, backed by strong leadership and skilled managers.
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