The fact that we are well into the twenty first century and are still discussing gender equality is a collective shame. For all the effort employers are putting into this, why are they making so little headway? Why does a solution elude us despite “doing” gender for so long?
Cutting out all the fluff around the subject, here is what I think are the three most fundamental actions we must take if want to see real change.
Build conviction and urgency on gender balance as a business and social imperative
Diversity and Inclusion is a concept that has been appreciated only at an intellectual level and not at an emotional level for mindsets to change. Putting up posters, celebrating Women’s Day or introducing new policies and programs around inclusion are of limited value if employees have not had a chance to reflect and debate on their beliefs and assumptions of gender roles and expectations and how it influences our unconscious attitudes and behaviours, perpetuating inequities, at work and in society.
Organisations must take time to candidly examine historical practices and explore what aspects of gender differences are real and what are just stereotyped generalizations. Besides the C-suite leaders, the one group that has the most potential to make a difference are midlevel managers in organisations. They must be on board and own gender balance as a collective responsibility if organisations are looking for a culture change.
Realign policies to match intent of addressing the unique challenges for women at work.
Organisations that engage women must accommodate for some of the fundamental enablers that women need to succeed at work. This is not just maternity leave but often times a more flexible work schedule and reliable child and elder care. While these are clearly not just a woman’s issue, the fact is that women have borne the cost of institutional failure to address them. This must not be seen as a more expensive proposition or as being unfair to men but as a valuable support for a real barrier to the advancement of women.
Rigidity in organizational structures and working arrangements not only keep women from achieving their full potential but also restrain men from playing a role in parenting and caring responsibilities. Innovative policies that are equally available to men and women will encourage more men to participate in home responsibilities and help to erode the societal expectation that a woman’s family role must take precedence over her career. This is vital to build and sustain a more equal social order.
Invest in affirmative leadership initiatives for women
Recognize that the legacy blueprint of a leader, generally defined in narrow “masculine” terms continues to influence us. Many well-intentioned managers continue to evaluate talent with unconscious beliefs that life commitments for women make them risky candidates for non-traditional roles or stretch assignments. Organisations must, therefore, work proactively at countering this.
Consciously provide non-traditional and strategic P&L assignments for women. At the same time, overcome the hesitancy to provide women with the development feedback they need to perform. This will encourage new and varied styles of leadership and break unconscious assumptions about women’s abilities. This must be done even if it means setting targets in the short term.
Consider targeted women-only workshops to unearth the sub-conscious limitations women themselves carry to help her build confidence and legitimacy for leadership.
Frequent interactions and face time with leaders, research confirms, is important to fuel ambitions and it holds true for women as well. Mentor and sponsor them in more conscious ways.
Gender balance is a collective effort. It runs on the strength of multiple levers and on the fuel of shared values of trust and collaboration. It is the glue that holds all of it together for a productive and balanced organisation.