The issue of gender balance in corporations often seems unnecessarily complicated. A lot of the trouble has been caused by the legacy of a couple of decades of well-meaning but ineffective solutions. These solutions are still too often presented as ‘best practices’. Yet they don’t work, and their repeated application makes many managers incredibly gender fatigued and frustrated.
Problem 1: Calling it Diversity
Whoever came up with the idea of putting gender issues under the diversity umbrella? How did women, who are 50% of the population, control 60% of global spending, and represent 60% of university graduates, ever accept to be positioned as a “diversity” demographic? Positioning “women” (gender in most companies is never about men) as one minority among many others obscures the issue. Nowhere was this calculation (and its impact) more evident than in the recent US presidential campaign, where one party saw women as a key strategic lever to their goal, the other a non-essential side issue.
Similarly, why do we unquestioningly use the oxymoronish term “gender diversity”? There are only two genders, so you can’t have a diversity of them; your organization is either balanced or imbalanced.
Solution: Make gender balancing a strategic initiative, led by the CEO, framed as a lever to achieving business strategy, not as a separate initiative for already overburdened executives.
Every manager I have worked with hates the fact that companies talk about “Diversity and Inclusion,” but then they are given targets on women (most don’t even target balance). Everyone, including me, agrees that the D&I objective is about achieving diversity of thought, and seeks to maximize the contributions of every element of difference. So managers feel uncomfortable narrowing or even focusing D&I on any single dimension — with reason.
But gender imbalance isn’t solved by being more self-aware or “inclusive” — which is what most diversity training focuses on (although that doesn’t hurt). It’s about learning enough about the differences between men and women to be able to effectively access and connect with the majority of today’s talent and markets. Leaders are inordinately nervous about admitting that their priority is gender (which it is in many companies and countries), so they prefer what they see as the more widely acceptable term of diversity. But this very fear is part of the problem. You can’t address the gender issue sideways, because at some point, men will need to learn about women (and vice versa). And the answer won’t be found in binders — or diversity programs. Don’t hide gender balancing behind the ‘D&I’ camouflage because you think that will make it more acceptable. It makes it worse, not better. Name it, prioritize it and be clear why it’s important for your company.
Problem 2: Setting Killer KPIs
Most of the KPIs I see on gender are targets that only measure the firm’s total percentage of women, e.g. 20% women by 2020, with some kind of increment every year. This again reinforces in everyone’s mind that the subject is all about women and that the company is scrambling to promote as many women as possible, and every one mutters darkly about affirmative action. This is not the best motivator of men that I know. Most women are pretty uncomfortable about it too.
Solution: Targets need careful definition, and they need to clarify what the company is after — and avoid the dangers of aggregation. Is having 80% women in HR and support functions and 80% of men in operational roles what you are after? If not, you’ll need to make your targets explicit, by function and level. For instance, make sure targets are gender neutral and focused on balance, not women, e.g., a minimum of 35% (or 50%) of either gender at all levels across all functions.
Global targets that simply set a target percentage of women end up with unintended consequences that will take decades to fix. Our annual Global Gender balance Scorecard shows that 63% of the women sitting on Executive Committees of the top 100 US companies are in support functions, not P&L roles. This isn’t balance, it’s just Mad Men, repainted.
Problem 3: Focusing Only on Women
The majority of companies work on gender issues by launching and running initiatives aimed at women. These include a litany of programs (women’s networks, leadership training for women, coaching and mentoring for women) that are very popular with women — and with men. Women enjoy them because they often feel more comfortable with other women, and men enjoy feeling that they have given women “equal opportunities” (even if those opportunities are separate).
Both of these perspectives pose a problem — and confirm in everyone’s mind that the lack of balance is because of women and their choices (usually perceived and framed as work/ life issues). The reality is that the lack of balance is usually because of the mindsets and cultures introduced and maintained by the majority currently in power. For things to change, that is where most of the work actually has to focus.
A simple short cut is to drop the use of the word “women” — “customers,” “talent” or “leadership” will do nicely. The more companies talk about “women” the more they position the issue of balance as a women’s issue and exclude the role of men in the solution. Gender balance will never happen without the support and understanding of male managers. Branding everything as “women’s” (conferences, networks or programs) confirms in men’s minds that this is not their issue. What companies actually need is a meritocracy that recognizes and adapts and celebrates male and female styles. Gender neutrality in vocabulary and policy making is the bedrock of sustainable balance.
Solution: Focus on the majority in power, which in most companies is still men. They are the ones who still need to ‘buy’ the case for balance, and, in my experience, most of them still don’t. Balance is built only if the people running organizations want it, understand its benefits and create innovative cultures and policies designed to enable it.
For instance, as a starting point, we run ‘Strategic Debates’ that get Executive Committees (mostly men) to spend a day on 3 topics: WHY? WHAT? And HOW?
• WHY? Involves debating whether the company should aim for gender balance, why, how and how fast. It is in peer group discussions that they begin to align a common understanding of the issue — and the goal.
• WHAT? Is a fast track education on gender differences and how to manage “bilingually” across genders. Remarkably, leaders will be the first to tell you that they really don’t understand women.
• HOW? Offers guidelines on how to implement gender balance on a global scale, and what to avoid. What are the innovative best practices, how to radically reframe the whole issue as a strategic priority for all managers and how to pace and sequence a program over a realistic timeline.
Executive teams find this an eye-opening experience, one that completely turns upside down many of the ideas and approaches they had to the topic. And, to the amazement of many of the women involved, they actually love it. It gives them the tools and skills to look good and feel comfortable addressing gender issues.
This election has just given us a case study of the tangible returns of gender bilingualism. The bottom line? In the 21st century, whether you want to win elections or competitive edge, you better learn how to connect with women as well as men.
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