I’d like to start a conversation about gender issues in business. And in particular, why there seems to be a belief out there that women need so much special, “only-for-women” support in order to be successful leaders.
When I read articles and look at the content of all sorts of courses aimed at women in order to help them be more successful, I am distressed to see that the premise is so often that women “need” help: help in being more assertive; help in figuring out how to be charismatic; help in communicating convincingly and with conviction; help in knowing what they want to achieve; and help in motivating their teams. Are women leadership-impaired?
Our male colleagues, meanwhile, have been taking communications and management and leadership and personal development courses for years! Of course, these have mostly been single gender session, but not because companies were thinking about special “male” needs. Rather because they didn’t have many women peers.
And that is precisely the problem.
When it comes to management and leadership skills, I don’t think women need help any more or less than men do. But women are pigeon-holed into slower tracks, expected to deal with two full-time jobs, at the office and at home, and shut out of high-powered positions that require a lot of time and energy. As a female student at Harvard Business School quoted in a N.Y. Times article dated September 7, 2013, describes “…women never heard about many of the most lucrative jobs because the men traded contacts and tips among themselves”. Or the male venture capital partner who told female HBS students who were thinking of going into the field not to do it because male partners didn’t want them there, adding “and I’m doing you a favor by telling you so”.
Women don’t all agree about what to do about this either. Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, is among women telling other women to “lean in” while others are responding that men need to take on more responsibilities at home. But the individual and home-life approaches, both of which are important, are not about changing culture in the workplace.
So, just like the Harvard Business School deans who in 2010 determined to tackle this issue systemically, I believe that the issue for women in business is a not a “women’s” issue. It’s a pervasive issue, that lies in the nature of the interaction between men and women that has prevailed in companies as well as in politics, religion and other areas where power is at stake. What stereotypes and a priori positions drive how individuals of one gender view colleagues of their own or the other gender? And most important of all, what opportunities have these opened (or closed down) and for whom?
So before rushing out to offer courses to women that start from the premise of special “needs”: “if they could just demonstrate greater confidence everything would be fine”, I’d like to suggest that this is a systemic issue. As such, it won’t be resolved by single-gender management courses for women. The way forward, as I see it, is for men and women with influence and decision-making authority to get together and talk together, co-owning the situation and finding ways to institutionalize how their organization will bridge the gaps in all the key people processes where they arise.
Some of the things we have observed in client companies are:
Implement pro-active HR policies to manage the gender balance
Apply “Gender Balance Scorecards” to company leadership bodies and publish the results widely
Publicly make a senior male executive accountable for implementing gender equity in the organization
Authorize and support female initiatives in using corporate social networks, including connecting women for experience sharing in open or corporate forums. And since we’re talking about systemic change, who knows, but men might want to get in on the action here, thus expressing their involvement, support and mind-set shift!
These initiatives, far more than skills training, are the sorts of things that will produce mass effect. This is a culture change challenge. And like all change processes, you need all stakeholders involved. Some will perceive themselves as winners and support the process, and others will see themselves as losers and do what they can to block change. That’s what needs to be worked out.