Hundreds of leading women at the World Women Leadership Congress in Mumbai filled the large ballroom with stunning expertise and vibrant engagement. The only panel of that day, 17 February, discussed a delicate question: The invisible dynamics of gender bias. The only man on the panel, Michael Stuber, shares his top recommendations from 20 years of experience in advancing Gender Diversity on the occasion of International Women’s Day (8 March).
1 Get the tone from the Top but the action from Middle Management
A lesson from decades tells us that we will not create momentum without a clear, consistent message from the top. This has to establish the sense and the vision for gender diversity. Our experience shows, however, that concrete actions leading to real progress should be decided upon at upper middle management levels. There we create traction on the organisation.
2 Put business targets first and make your gender numbers indicators for success
The ongoing disconnect concerns numbers. The political (or feminist) understanding is that a fair share for women is the actual goal. Our business-aligned versions set objectives regarding engagement, market share, innovation or brand image, and establish gender diversity and other metrics as indicators of success, i.e. meritocratic processes and their unbiased deployment.
3 Before focusing on recruiting women make sure you have identified and closed your leakages
Concrete efforts to recruit women have been an intuitive choice for most companies once they focused on gender. However, many of them did not realise how much women they had already recruited in the past – and later lost them. Understanding these leaks in the pipeline and rigorously fixing them allows many companies to tap into a large talent pool.
4 Stop women-only initiatives and run all programmes with a diversity mind-set
For decades, many well-intended programmes offered networking or development opportunities to women. No matter how professional their design, they typically conveyed two unfortunate messages to men: Reverse discrimination and/or a need to help or support women in some specific way. Both can be avoided by consistently putting D&I in practice – and you automatically educate men by involving them.
5 Identify role models based on their behaviour and skills, not on personal demographics
It has been another well-intended idea of senior executives to provide women with visibility by letting them run the show, the gender show. This will actually be good for everyone involved, if all influential executives and opinion leaders (regardless of their gender) continue to be involved and walk the walk. However, in many cases, ‘she’ will be perceived as acting ‘as a woman’ – which has not helped neither her nor the programme.
6 Eliminate social, ethical and deficit/support language from your gender material
Gender Diversity has a political and certainly many societal or social components. However, in a business context, this has often created an unfortunate connotation of women needing support or how engagement for diversity can be a social deed. On the contrary, our analysis show that most business organisations require improvements, changes and maintenance so that they make the most of differences. The language of strengths and potential leads to the momentum required to trigger the change wanted.
7 Deploy a mix of high profile and embedded strategies – neither can be successful alone
The fashion to mainstream gender and diversity in processes has sometimes led to an unwanted invisibility. While embedded strategies are effective and sustainable when it comes to processes, routines and governance, dedicated activities, programmes, communication and events are needed to continue to drive gender and diversity related change – not only on International Women’s Day.
The origin: World Women Leadership Congress in Mumbai, 17 February 2017
It was a truly global panel moderated by Rajita Singh, Head Human Resourcesat Broadridge Financial Solutions (India) and featuring
- Wasuthorn Harnnapachewin, Director – Coaching, Slingshot Group, Thailand
- Shobha Vasudevan, Head – Corporate Communications & PR, Dell India
- Milena Schwager, Executive Producer, GEB TV Productions and Entertainment, Dubai
- Juliet Pratt, New Zealand
- Farana Boodhram, Chief Executive Officer, Talmin, South Africa
- Michael Stuber, CEO, European Diversity Research & Consulting
The panel first discussed widespread resistance to even recognizing gender biases in the first place. This often becomes visible when – mostly men – argue that women make their own choices, including on careers, or when they speak about (stereotypical) strengths they assume women bring (or lack). The traditional gender roles that are reflected in such phenomena sometimes also show up when future workplace skills are discussed. Dealing with complexity, ambiguity, change and context is a clear success factor in a globalized and virtualized economy. Some studies suggest that women show more strengths in relevant areas than men, other studies found more similarities than differences between men and women (of similar education). This is also relevant for the question of women in Hi-Tech: The low representation of girls in some relevant study areas cannot explain the underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions in the Hi-tech industry or hi-tech functions. Upbringing, education, peer pressure and media influence have a huge impact on both men and women as it relates to gender perceptions. New forms of (experiential or action) learning, mentoring, development programmes or e-Learning can actually contribute to changing some of the rigid perceptions and preconceptions of and among men and women. One important topic for any effective gender diversity learning is the invisible nature of some relevant barriers that have prevented most women from being as successful as their male peers in many business contexts. The so-called unwritten rules favour dominant groups – in this case men – and they exist probably in every corporate culture. At least, the famous model of Schein describes ‘basic assumptions’ as an underlying level – below the proclaimed values – and they can be identified by various methodologies of corporate cultural diagnostics. Working long hours, being flexible on work time and mobility, a natural talent for self-marketing (aka visibility) and for networking (aka male-bonding) are some of the aspects often found in today’s corporate cultures. Only through open acknowledgement and discussion, the invisible norms can be addressed and eventually changed in a positive and sustainable way.