Friday, November 14, 2008

Rebalancing Gender

Women represent the majority of educated talent in today's knowledge economy. From Arkansas to Abu Dhabi, the majority of university graduates are women: 60 percent in the U.S. and Europe, 60 percent in Iran and 70 percent in the United Arab Emirates. Yet, many organizations still treat them as one minority among many, missing the opportunity to leverage women as a potent economic force.

Most companies recognize this. They launch diversity programs but readily acknowledge gender is their top priority. Women represent not just a significant percent of available talent; they make 80 percent of purchasing decisions about consumer goods. Research indicates companies with more women on the board and in key positions are more profitable, making talent, markets and performance three key drivers behind a renewed interest in gender.Companies often approach gender as an intractable problem. For many organizations and managers, it is an issue they have focused on for decades with relatively unsatisfactory results: too few women in senior positions, too few women on the board and too few women in law firm or consulting firm partnerships.

Diversity leaders often repeat and amplify approaches that have had a limited impact in the past. Typically, companies that want to launch initiatives to improve gender balance in management and leadership benchmark to see what peer organizations have done. But no company has really cracked this issue. Only a hard-to-find handful in a few geographies actually has women at the top and a well-stocked pipeline of female talent.

Companies follow others' best practices even when proof of efficacy is not present. They organize women's conferences, create women's networks, offer women leadership training and coaching, get them to work extra hard - usually in their spare time - to prepare recommendations on how to improve the situation. It's Gender 101 in most American companies, and the class is increasingly being exported internationally. In this fix-the-women approach, the underlying - if unexpressed - assumption is women are not making it to the top of the corporate world because they can't, don't have what it takes or don't want to.

Consider a quote from Olivier Marchal, managing director of Bain & Co. in France: "In improving gender balance women may hold the keys, but men still control the locks." Men have been uninvolved in the gender conversation for too long. Without them, progress on rebalancing gender will be stalled for many more years.

Where We're Going: 'Fix the Managers'

To impact gender balance, diversity leaders must ask the right people, the right questions. Rather than ask women why they are not being promoted, ask the people doing the promoting. Rather than get women to devise strategies to improve gender balance, why not get both genders involved in the analysis and implementation of action plans?

Rather than expect women to adopt the current pyramidal business model to move up, why not question the relevance of the model in today's business landscape and get women to help redesign it for a 21st-century world? That requires starting at the top, usually by spending a day with the executive committee.

Most executive committees are neither convinced nor aligned around a business case for gender balance. They are largely unaware of the impressive statistics on women's economic power as employees and customers. And when they are aware, these numbers are not always presented in a convincing way - despite the different degrees of potential impact on the bottom line - or they have been part of more global briefings on diversity that drowns the message.

The (usually male) executive committee members rarely have been asked to debate or analyze the issue, and unless there is some form of experiential buy-in at this level, little progress will be made. Spend a half or a full day with these teams in sessions that can then be rolled out to their direct reports and key executive and managerial populations. Only companies willing to invest in building gender bilingualism among their leaders are in a realistic position to implement the change-management mentality around gender as a business issue that is required to make real, sustainable progress.

The CEO should be involved and challenge group members to air their views honestly. Political correctness can be the death of the gender dialogue. They will chew through the numbers, review their internal realities and debate the issue and its strategic relevance for their organizations. They should get expert input into gender differences and how to manage them. Then craft the action plan, complete with defined objectives, timetables and accountability, and commit to it. If they don't have the time, or decide it's not a priority, don't bother. Nonstrategic gender initiatives do as much harm as good.

Sessions can include men and women but currently are dominated by men in most corporate leadership positions. The gender mix brings added depth to the debate but is not essential to reach the key objective: to get today's leaders to understand the gender issue and to define how significant a priority it is for their businesses. These sessions have three major objectives:

Objective No. 1:

Find out who cares. In most companies, the CEO reaching out for help achieving gender balance is personally convinced of the need to move forward and create impact at the top. The CEO usually is convinced his executive committee team is aligned behind him. But the gender issue often is either mired in political correctness or seen as a minor HR issue, so the real pros and cons of rebalancing gender rarely have been debated at this level. Dissent has never been aired, and alignment among the leadership team often is simply assumed.

Alignment is rarely evident. Wanting to believe everyone agrees on gender balance is a significant barrier to actually implementing the required changes. So the first exercise is to conduct a quick, confidential vote. Ask each executive committee member to write on a Post-It the priority level they would give to the gender issue as a business issue for their company in the next five years on a scale of one to 10. The numbers usually range across the board. Within two minutes of starting, diversity leaders can establish the key reason a company has made little progress on this issue: Its leaders don't agree that it should.

Objective No. 2:

Look at the data. Review the statistics. Do the external ones first: the reality of a shifting talent pool, customer profiles, demographic pressures and differentiated academic achievements. Then do internal ones: Contrast the significant, sometimes revolutionary, external evolutions with a company's internal statistics and progress over time.

Data will tell its own story. The tale is not that of the oft-cited glass ceiling, with its assumption that women make it up through the ranks until a sudden blockage at a senior level. The reality in today's corporate world is the percentage of women drops off at almost every grade level.The glass ceiling metaphor has blinded diversity leaders to a more pervasive problem - what we call "gender asbestos." Behind the metaphors, the reality is companies have not yet adapted their cultures, career paths, processes and promotions to the reality of 21st-century talent and markets. They still are not identifying, retaining and promoting female talent, despite decades spent trying. Most of the members of the executive committee likely have never looked at this data in detail or been asked whether it would impact their business.

So ask them. A simple SWOT exercise is enough. Ask the team to analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of their company in rebalancing gender in leadership. They are likely all familiar with the process. They've just never applied it to gender. And when they do, the experiential part of the learning comes into play.The learning comes not only from the debate among themselves about the data's significance and whether they should care about it. The real learning comes when the mostly male members of the team hear their colleagues' positions on the topic. In a half-hour exercise, it becomes intensely clear and unavoidably visible what each individual thinks of gender, how comfortable they are discussing the issue - let alone leading on it - and which of three typical segments they fall into: progressive, patient or plodding.

Nothing is more impactful for the progressives in the room than to hear a group of plodding colleagues use arguments they thought had disappeared a generation ago. It usually is a strong wake up call for the CEO and goes a long way to explain lack of progress and the reality of the challenge that lies ahead.

Objective No. 3:

Make a plan. The day usually concludes with some form of action planning. The usual reaction is to hand gender-balance initiatives over to the company's most senior woman to lead. But in organizations in which the leadership is dominated by men, it is more effective to appoint a male leader to this topic. After all, the issue moving forward along this approach is to convince men they are part of the change-management process in rebalancing gender.

Once the executive committee has been through this kind of workshop, it likely will agree it needs to be rolled out to executives and managers. The feedback - a combination of awareness building, strategic planning and pragmatic proposals for action - is a potent case for progress.

Rebalancing gender in leadership does not require a decades-long investment in training and coaching women to adopt behaviors more acceptable to the dominant norm. Instead, it invites the dominant norm to better understand why its interests lie in optimizing the talents and opportunities of women and how to manage more "bilingually" across genders. That when real progress can begin.

21st-Century Approaches to Achieve Gender Balance

a) Start by getting the executive committee and CEO to understand the issue.

b) Position it a business issue, not a women's issue.

c) Get top management to design/approve an action plan.

d) Appoint a high-profile senior man to run the gender initiative.

e) Position gender outside of diversity, preferably outside of HR.

f) Think of women as a majority.

g) Train men (and women) how to manage "bilingually" across genders.

Traditional Approaches

a) Position gender as a part of wider diversity initiatives.

b) Call gender initiatives "Women in Leadership," clearly positioning it as women's issue, not a business issue.

c) Think of women as a minority.

d) Appoint a woman to run the gender issue.

e) Create a women's network as the key initiative.

f) Ask women for proposals to improve gender balance.

g) Promote women, as long as they behave as much like men as possible

[About the Author: Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is CEO of 20-first, a European gender consultancy and co-author of Why Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergence of Our Next Economic Revolution.]

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