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Bob Wilson: Why gender balance isn’t working (and what to do about it)

December 21, 2018

WilsonOn Oct. 23, The Wall Street Journal had a section devoted to women in the workplace. The most significant takeaway was that, in spite of all the talk about promoting women’s success and making the most of women’s potential contributions, nothing has changed significantly. The statistics regarding females at all levels of leadership are disheartening.

Things need to change. Women need to be where decisions are made. Why? They think differently than men. Research shows that, generally, they’re more collaborative, team-oriented and people-oriented than men. It’s not a better thing. It’s a different thing. When the differences meet, synergy results.

Additionally, women are (broadly) better educated than men. They receive the majority of undergraduate degrees and even a greater percentage of graduate diplomas than men. Yet, they’re underrepresented in all leadership ranks.

Getting women into the decision-making arena isn’t a diversity issue (as is true with all diversity issues). It’s a business-results issue. Women need to be involved in senior-level decision-making because leaving their potential insight and education out of the process diminishes an organization’s long-term business results.

Here’s where we are. According to the WSJ, the same number of men and women enter the workplace. At each level of management, the percentage of women drops off. At senior-level management, men outnumber women 2-to-1. Only 22 percent of the C-suite occupants are women. Why is this happening?

First, women frequently choose not to rise to the top. Why?

Conflict between child-rearing and career. Women need the space to be able to have and be involved in the rearing of their children while managing their careers. If they have to work 50- to 60-hour weeks to keep their place on the succession ladder, many prefer to give up that place. If organizations want women to rise to the top, the child-rearing years need to be accommodated, understood and managed from above.

The need to “lean in” to masculinity. Many “successful” women at senior-level positions (where the accommodations mentioned above have not been made) act much like the men that share senior positions with them. They’re very career-oriented. They’re self-directed. They’re not particularly collaborative. Many women look at those behaviors in other women and conclude, “Those behaviors aren’t for me.”

The asbestos ceiling. A new concept called the “asbestos ceiling”—rather than the glass ceiling—is emerging. Many women view the strategies fellow women have taken for career success and they’re repelled. This explains why the ranks of women decrease from one managerial level to the next moving up the ladder. They bail out of the system. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, an expert in gender diversity, calls this “gender asbestos,” claiming there is gender asbestos everywhere—in the leadership mindsets, cultures and systems of companies.

Changing this paradigm in your business quicker than others will drive competitive advantage in the tight labor market we’re expecting for the next 15 years.

There are several ways to change the results we’re seeing.

Get men involved. In most businesses, it’s men sitting in the C-suite. Men need to understand that attaining gender equity requires a long-term culture shift driven by the fact that more women in leadership will yield better results. When women alone try to drive these changes, it fosters an us vs. them mentality that can alienate the men who must cooperate.

Mentorship groups of only women or internal women’s support groups don’t help the cause. Everyone, especially men, needs to recognize that organizations need to change to accommodate women and that those changes will be an overall benefit to the success of the business.

Get people talking about the problem and its solution. Leaders need to discuss the causes of the asbestos ceiling and come up with their own “cleanup operations” suited to their culture. Do we have fall-off of women at the various levels of our own management ladder? Gather the statistics. Figure out why.

Commit to results. Once you’ve got the outline of a “cleanup operation,” create key performance measures that back up the initiatives. Keep in mind that, if your organization has the statistical drop-off of women at each successive level of management, you’re embarking on a long-term fix—that has to take place concomitantly at every level of the organization—and that success will take years.

If you can become an organization where women see that their differences are respected and valued, they’ll want to join your organization. Men will, too.•

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Wilson is founder and chairman of Advisa, a Carmel-based leadership consultancy.

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