By: Avivah Wittenberg-Cox
Over the past decade, I have worked with 65 companies, across 32 countries, facilitated 276 “strategic debates” with over 3,000 (mostly male) executives on gender balancing their businesses. I’ve worked across sectors, from finance and energy to tech and consumer goods. Here’s what I learned along the way.
Top Teams Care More Than Many People Think, but Aren’t Skilled at Selling Their ‘Why?’
“I have two daughters, so this is an important issue for me.”
I usually start work with clients by facilitating a 6-hour debate among the Executive Team. I begin by asking each individual to (anonymously) rank the importance of gender balance to their business over the next five years. Over the past decade, I’ve watched senior teams rank it as an increasingly important business priority. But when asked to prepare and pitch to their peers in the room why they rank it so high, they struggle to present an argument that would be convincing to their more skeptical colleagues. Some sound unsure or unconvinced themselves. Others are passionate “because they have daughters” and judgmentally declare they “can’t believe we’re still debating this.” A moderate middle suggests it contributes to performance, connects with customers and/or optimizes the talent pipeline. It becomes clear to everyone in the room that if leaders are all over the map on if and why balance matters, it’s unlikely the people working for them are going to believe it does, no matter how much training you throw at them.
Why Care? Equip leaders to explain why they believe balance matters, in a way that will be compelling to their dominant majority (usually men). Help the team align around the key drivers for balance and help each individual “own” the leadership skill of communicating it convincingly. If it doesn’t matter to them, they can stop here. In the past decade, I’ve had only a single company vote that it wasn’t a priority to proactively pursue.
They Don’t Know What They Don’t Know
“I really don’t feel comfortable about this issue or know how I should go about it.”
In my experience, most leaders make a lot of assumptions about why their businesses are currently imbalanced – if they think about it at all. In reality, most haven’t given it more than a passing thought. Rarely have senior executives had substantive discussions with their colleagues about gender issues, especially not with their male peers (any women on the team are often shocked at the low levels of awareness). Nor do most have a data-driven analysis of the issue, in contrast to every other business issue they focus on. Their perception is colored by a handful of personal experiences they have had with female colleagues over the course of their careers. They are almost always shocked by the gender jaws we show them – showing where the imbalances begin, and how dramatically they grow in different parts of an organisation. Because of the way the issue has been framed for years, they can be forgiven for assuming, as they do, that the issues lie with women and has little to do with them.
Address Ignorance (not Bias): Prove to the leadership team that gender imbalance is caused by a combination of lack of leadership understanding and skill, the corporate culture this creates and perpetuates, and the systems that underpin it. This isn’t about addressing unconscious bias, which is the current request we get from most companies. It’s about revealing and filling in a huge blind spot – about half their employees, and a huge and growing chunk of their customers.