Stop blaming women: Prescribing a 21st century approach to gender diversity

The majority of current thinking on gender diversity actually serves to undermine women, unconsciously blaming them for failing to get ahead. We think that boards and managers need to stop expecting women to behave more like men, and instead explore what they themselves can do differently. It’s not about enabling women to fit in with the ‘way we do things round here’ it’s about fundamentally changing the way things are done. This helps all employees to perform at their best, bringing higher productivity and profitability to the organisations they work for.

How the healthiest companies keep in shape:

The ability of organisations to face challenges, resolve structural dilemmas and become more adaptable, innovative and responsive boils down to how their people are organised.

No CEO really goes to work and spends the morning working on EPS growth with an afternoon getting stuck into their relative TSR performance; what they actually do is make sure that the right people are doing the right things in the right places at the right time.

Wrong diagnosis: Stop blaming women

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s call for women to assert themselves more and ‘Lean in’ at work, the self-recriminating agenda of ‘women in business’ themed conferences which address the business behaviours women lack, plus countless magazine articles devoted to the ‘mistakes women make’, all stand testament to this misdiagnosis.

It’s assumed that everything will be improved by creating better women’s networks and having more mentors to show women how things are done; providing more flexible working; making it easier for women to take career breaks and achieve work/life balance; and ensuring that women have the same career development opportunities as men.

They sound reasonable enough, but we believe they are based on a number of wrong assumptions and flawed prescriptions:

  • That women need to behave like successful men if they are to succeed
  • That offering women the chance to work flexibly will improve diversity
  • That the desire on the part of women to take a different approach to their career is driven by motherhood
  • That the reason women don’t want to take on top jobs is because they are women

The diagnosis

The real barrier to greater gender diversity – and to coping with the common organisational and business challenges faced by organisations today – is more fundamental.

It’s about companies not adapting the way they operate, value and manage their people either to women or to the modern world. Boards are trying to solve 21st century business challenges with 20th century solutions. They are still using a model of business designed by men, for men and for a bygone world.

To really crack the gender diversity problem, managers need to admit that ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. They too need to lean in, not just to be ‘nice’ to women, but in order to enable them to make the most of every opportunity.

The solution lies where it’s always been, in how you organise, manage and maximise the contribution of your people.

The prescription

The most successful organisations in the 21st century are those whose leaders have torn up the rulebook when it comes to roles, hierarchies and career paths, and started to think differently about recruitment, management styles, corporate culture and values – embracing diversity in all its forms.

Those that have adapted their management approach to better suit their employees and to cope with 21st century business challenges, haven’t simply tinkered round the edge of what they do: they’ve taken some radical steps and are seeing the rewards.

All top teams can benefit from similarly scrutinising and transforming the way they do things.

The prognosis

This approach can produce organisations that deliver to all employees (not just to women) the things they want: better recognition of the value of their skill set, alternative career paths, progression and performance measured more broadly than in other organisations, a lower dependence on the network to inform career opportunities, the possibility for better work/life balance, and a sense of purpose.

These values have helped boards at some of the best-performing organisations in the world grasp the opportunity offered by 21st century challenges, delivering higher revenue growth and profitability than their peers – and at a lower wage cost.

For organisations and leaders who choose to lean in – that is to lean into the 21st century – the prize is a sustainable organisation, growth and a meaningful legacy.

If you would to know more on this viewpoint please visit the Hay Group website.