How we can encourage more gender diversity at work

Posted by in Career Advice, Helen Soulsby, HR, Management, Women in sport

As today, March 8th, is International Womens Day, I wanted to share the following. Much of the content is from or inspired by Lean In, a book by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and a woman widely lauded for re-booting feminism in the last few years. The book itself is worth a read (for both men and women) to understand the state of play in terms of “equality” in the workplace. To understand how we as managers and colleagues can encourage more gender diversity at work (both at SRi and for our clients) and to get an insight into some of the reasons why women may be held back, or indeed may be holding themselves back.

Sandberg begins with commentary around the fact that, generally, in the developed world, women are better off than ever before. But the blunt truth is that men still run the world. Interestingly, women continue to outpace men in educational achievement, but have made no real progress at the top of any industry (holding around just 14% of Fortune 500 executive-officer positions). So, when it comes to making the decisions that most affect our world, women’s voices are not heard equally.

She talks about the fact that the “revolution” has stalled, because surely in a truly equal world, women would run half of the companies and countries and men would run half of the homes. There is overwhelming evidence from studies and the basic laws of economics that tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our performance would improve; that diversity at work improves performance.

As well as the obstacles and inequalities in the workplace (lack of flexibility, access to childcare, and sometimes blatant discrimination) and the messages we hear constantly about how hard it is to have a career and a family, women also hold themselves back. Men and women are different. Women tend to internalize the negative messages they get throughout their lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. Women tend to “pull back” when, Sandberg says, they should “lean in.”

Here are a few of the examples she uses in her book.

Extract from Lean In.

Don’t Leave Before You Leave

A few years ago, a young woman at Facebook began asking me lots of questions about how I balance work and family. I inquired if she and her partner were considering having a child. She replied that she did not have a husband, then added with a little laugh, “Actually, I don’t even have a boyfriend.”

From an early age, girls get the message that they will likely have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good wife and mother. By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs. In a survey of Princeton’s class of 2006, 62% of women said they anticipated work/family conflict, compared with 33% of men—and of the men who expected a conflict, 46% expected that their wives would step away from their career track. These expectations yield predictable results: among professional women who take time off for family, only 40% return to work full time.

But women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way. A law associate might decide not to shoot for partner because someday she hopes to have a family. A sales rep might take a smaller territory or not apply for a management role. A teacher might pass on leading curriculum development for her school. Often without even realizing it, women stop reaching for new opportunities. By the time a baby actually arrives, a woman is likely to be in a drastically different place than she would have been had she not leaned back. Before, she was a top performer on par with her peers in responsibility, opportunity and pay. But by not finding ways to stretch herself in the years leading up to motherhood, she has fallen behind. When she returns to the workplace after her child is born, she is likely to feel less fulfilled, underutilized or unappreciated. At this point, she probably scales her ambitions back even further since she no longer believes that she can get to the top.

There are many powerful reasons to exit the workforce. No one should pass judgment on these highly personal decisions. My point is that the time for a woman to scale back is when a break is needed or a child arrives—not before, and certainly not years in advance. For those who even have a choice, choosing to leave a child in someone else’s care and return to work is a hard decision. Anyone who has made this decision—myself included—knows how heartwrenching this can be. Only a compelling, challenging and rewarding job will begin to make that choice a fair contest.

Success and Likability

In 2003, Columbia Business School professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson ran an experiment. They started with a Harvard Business School case study about a real-life entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. It described how Roizen became a successful venture capitalist by using her “outgoing personality … and vast personal and professional network … [which] included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector.” Half the students in the experiment were assigned to read Heidi’s story. The other half got the same story with just one difference—the name was changed from Heidi to Howard.

When students were polled, they rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent. But Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” This experiment supports what research has already clearly shown: success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.

I believe this bias is at the very core of why women are held back. It is also at the very core of why women hold themselves back. When a woman excels at her job, both men and women will comment that she is accomplishing a lot but is “not as well liked by her peers.” She is probably also “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” “a bit political”; she “can’t be trusted” or is “difficult.” Those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.
The solution is making sure everyone is aware of the penalty women pay for success. Recently at Facebook, a manager received feedback that a woman who reported to him was “too aggressive.” Before including this in her review, he decided to dig deeper. He went back to the people who gave the feedback and asked what aggressive actions she had taken. After they answered, he asked point-blank, “If a man had done those same things, would you have considered him too aggressive?” They each said no. By showing both men and women how female colleagues are held to different standards, we can start changing attitudes today.

The book repeats a lot of themes and while all are not relevant to every woman, I do think some are pertinent to all of us as we attempt to develop high performing teams and fulfilling careers.

Another area Sandberg speaks a lot about and is so crucial to the way all of us develop our teams and speak to candidates and clients, is our language. I believe men and women are equally guilty in this. We use different words to describe women than we do to describe men and those words often promote a double standard. Many studies have shown that at work, women tend to receive more critical feedback than men and the criticism received is almost always relating to their personalities and not their actual performance.

Not only that, but the same behaviour in men tends to be described differently when it is displayed by women, for example, a man “needed to be more patient” while a woman was “abrasive” or “judgemental.”

Further, we often use words that qualify a woman’s accomplishments by her gender. For example, you likely would never call someone a “male venture capitalist” or a “dadtrepreneur,” yet few bat an eye when using qualifiers like female venture capitalist and (the worst word to ever have been invented) a “momtrepreneur”. And the old chestnut – How do you manage to be a mother and a CEO? Never a question asked to a Dad. As long as we continue to have one set of language for men and another for women are we encouraging the belief that women should be judged by a different set of rules?

Put bluntly, the leadership gap needs to close. We are all aware and truly believe that diversity in business makes sense on every level and every one of us can contribute to this change in some small way. The ultimate aim? Sandberg puts it simply: “In the future there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”

About the Author: Helen Soulsby – Managing Partner, Asia

Managing teams in Singapore and Beijing, Helen’s role is to drive performance and growth in the APAC business through partnering with clients to deliver executive search assignments, as well as advising on executive board structures to best lead overall business strategy. The APAC team has built a reputation as the leading business in the region in delivering multi-hire projects that enable sports businesses to launch in the APAC region with maximum impact.