- Author: Michelle King
The lack of women in leadership is not simply a representational issue. Focusing on getting more women in leadership positions not only treats women as token hires, it excludes men who are made to feel as though engaging in diversity and inclusion is a win-lose fight for a seat on the leadership table. And improving representation will not fix the culture and environment that excluded women in the first place.
Rather, the real aim should be for leaders to create a culture that values, rewards, and supports individual differences. In a work environment where differences are valued, everyone has an opportunity to advance, which is why both women and men are more likely to rise to senior leadership positions in cultures that value equality.
So why aren’t leaders creating these environments? In a word, denial. While most people know that women have different experiences than men at work, I found in my research that a majority of leaders are in denial about that fact. I interviewed 72 men and women from two different organizations and these senior executives consistently upheld the belief that workplaces are meritocracies and that all employees are treated in the same way. Almost every one of my interviewees said that they believed men and women have identical opportunities, workplace experiences, and career paths. Consequently, they believed that women do not succeed because of their individual choices or capabilities and not because of unwelcoming and even hostile work environments.
Most workplaces were created by men and for men, which in turn has created numerous challenges for women to overcome. The situation is only made worse when leaders make public commitments to increase the number of women in leadership roles and then continue to rely on ineffective solutions as the means to achieving this. Leaders might be aware there is a gender equality problem, but very few understand how inequality works.
And yet leaders set the standards for behaviors in organizations. They decide what gets endorsed, accepted, supported, overlooked, and rewarded. They decide how many women will be on a team, and more importantly if they will be treated in a way that enables them to thrive in the organization. A “policy” or “training program” can’t compensate for leaders who consistently ignore or even endorse behaviors, such as comments or jokes, that discriminate, marginalize, and exclude women.
Inclusion does or doesn’t happen in millions of moments each day and leaders need to stop denying the reality for women and become aware of all the ways they enable inequality to unfold in their teams.
The call for leaders to advance gender equality at work, regardless of whether they lead a startup, multinational, or public-sector organization, is in reality an invitation for them to lead. Here’s how they can do that.
The first step is for leaders to get out of denial and become aware of how inequality shows up in their team, department, and organization. Even if they are aware of the barriers, they can help others do the same. To do so, they must create opportunities for employees to talk about their experiences of marginalization and discrimination. One leader at a large multinational organization that I spoke with as part of my research held a one-hour weekly meeting with their teams to openly discuss topics like the pay gap, motherhood penalty, and microaggressions to raise awareness of the barriers women face and the impact each has and what needs to be done to tackle these issues. While discussing these topics might make some leaders uncomfortable at first, it is important to lean into this discomfort as this is how we make invisible experiences of inequality visible.
Get to Know the Barriers
How many leaders understand the barriers women face at work? There’s the fact that women must perform at a higher standard than men to achieve the same level of success. This performance tax limits women’s pay and promotion opportunities. There’s also the role conflict that many women encounter as they try to manage the often incompatible roles of worker, wife, and mother. And many women experience identity conflict, trying to lead in workplaces where only masculine management styles are recognized and rewarded. It’s important for leaders to know that every one of these challenges is made harder still when women have multiple intersecting identities like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, religion, and age.
It’s not enough to be aware there is a problem, and it’s certainly not enough to throw a quota in place, or another training initiative, which requires no real effort from leaders. To solve inequality, we need leaders to educate themselves, by reading, researching, and understanding why these challenges exist and how, as leaders, they might be unknowingly creating or upholding such barriers.
Manage the Moments
Inequality is a practice — it’s something employees do, which is why leaders need to continuously manage behaviors that cause inequality in the same way that they manage safety, costs, and productivity. It doesn’t matter how many policies or diversity and inclusion initiatives companies have in place if leaders and employees cannot translate equality into a set of behaviors, norms, and routines.
In practice, this means leaders call out inappropriate or exclusionary behaviors, especially when they happen in informal interactions; give employees direct one-on-one feedback outlining how their behavior marginalizes other employees — whether intentional or not; and explain the impact these moments have on the team. They should not, as too many leaders do, ignore the incident or downplay its impact in the hope that it goes away. The most committed leaders can also use these experiences as opportunities for collective learning with their teams by sharing what happened and what will change as a result. When leaders do this on a regular basis, they raise employee’s awareness of the problem and encourage everyone to solve the issue by changing their behavior.
Even though managing discrimination can be challenging for leaders, it’s a lot harder for employees to work in an environment where their identity is devalued. Being in a position to tackle inequality that you yourself may never have to experience is the ultimate privilege.
There are more inclusion initiatives than ever before, from diversity targets to focused recruitment efforts, unconscious bias training, and individual development programs for women, which often include mentoring, sponsorship, and coaching. With all this activity, it’s easy to assume progress is being made. But none of these efforts will guarantee that women reach management positions or that, when they do, they’ll be valued in the same way as men. That’s where leaders come in. It’s on the most powerful people in the organization to set the standard for the types of behaviors they want employees to adopt and to give them the skills and feedback they need to practice equality as part of their day-to-day job so that it becomes a fundamental way of working. That’s the only way organizations will become truly equal.
Michelle King is the director of inclusion at Netflix, and the author of The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work.
Disclosure: Smita Nair Jain has nothing to disclose. She doesn’t own stock in any publicly traded companies and does not hold investments in the technology companies. She has equivalent of the American 401(k) plan in India that is automatically managed. (Updated: June 24, 2020)
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