Chairman’s Letter: Gender Balance in Leadership

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Why gender balance isn’t working (and what to do about it)

On October 23rd, the Wall Street Journal had a section devoted to Women in the Workplace. The most significant takeaway for me was that in spite of all the talk about promoting women’s success and advantaging women’s potential contributions, gender balance hasn’t changed significantly. The statistics regarding females at all levels of leadership are disheartening. They stink.

Things need to change. Women need to be where decisions are made. Why? They think differently than men. Research shows that generally, they’re more collaborative, team-oriented and people-oriented than men. It’s not a better thing. It’s a different thing. And, as the French say, “Viva la difference.” When the differences meet, synergy results. And, since half the workforce is female, losing out on that population as a source of leaders is not sustainable.

Additionally, women are (broadly) better educated than men. They receive the majority of undergraduate degrees and even a greater percentage of graduate diplomas than men. Yet, they’re underrepresented in all leadership ranks.

Getting women into the decision-making arena isn’t a diversity issue (as is true with all diversity issues). It’s a business results issue.  Women need to be involved in senior-level decision-making because leaving their potential insight and education out of the process diminishes an organization’s long-term business results. Things need to change.

Here’s where we are. According to the WSJ, the same number of men and women enter the workplace. At each level of management, the percentage of women drops off. At senior level management, men outnumber women 2-1. Only 22% of the C-Suite are women. Despite all the talk, the focus groups, the written words, and the consulting; women still aren’t sitting at the table where decisions are being made. This is an appalling failing. Why is this happening?

First, women frequently choose not to rise to the top. Why?

Conflict between child-rearing and career.

Women need the space in order to be able to have and be involved in the rearing of their children while managing their careers. If they have to work 50-60 hour weeks in order to keep their place on the succession ladder while raising kids, many prefer to give up that place. If organizations want women to rise to the top, the child-rearing years need to be accommodated, understood and managed from above. Many times the women who make it to the C-Suite compromised mothering in one way or another with their careers.  They toughed it out. Many who could have made it to the C-Suite decided that the sacrifice required wasn’t one they wanted to make – they’d rather spend more time being mothers – eschewing their career ambitions. The companies involved are the losers.

The need to “lean in” to masculinity.

Many “successful” women at senior level positions (where the accommodations mentioned above have not been made), frequently act much like the men that share senior positions with them. They’re very career oriented and self-directed. They’re not particularly collaborative but they are successful! But, many women look at those behaviors in other women and conclude, “Those behaviors aren’t for me.” They conclude, “That’s not a ladder I want to climb because I won’t act like that to achieve ’success’.”

The asbestos ceiling.

A new concept called the “Asbestos Ceiling,” rather than the glass ceiling because of points 1 and 2 above, is emerging. Many women view the strategies fellow women have taken for career success from below – and they’re repelled. The experience is radioactive. This explains why the ranks of women decrease from one managerial level to the next moving up the ladder. Women see they’ve got to personally adopt the “natures” of men to be successful – working long days – even through child-rearing years – while acting more like men than women – focusing on self, drive and ambition rather than their natural responses of collaboration and team orientation. Instead, they bail out of the system. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, an expert in gender diversity, calls this ‘gender asbestos,’ claiming there is gender asbestos everywhere – in the leadership mindsets, cultures and systems of companies.

Changing this paradigm in your business quicker than others will drive competitive advantage in the tight labor market we’re expecting for the next 15 years.

There are several things you/we can do to change the results we’re seeing. Here they are.

Get men involved.

In most businesses, it’s men sitting in the C-Suite. Men need to understand that attaining gender equity requires a long-term culture shift driven by the fact that more women in leadership will yield better results. When women alone try to drive these changes, it can alienate the men who must cooperate by fostering an us vs. them mentality.  Mentorship groups of only women or internal women’s support groups don’t help the cause. Everyone, and especially men, needs to recognize that organizations need to change to accommodate women and that those changes will be an overall benefit to the success of the business. And paradoxically, men need to lead the charge from the top.

Get people talking about the problem and its solution.

Leaders need to think about and discuss the causes of the asbestos ceiling and come up with their own “Clean-up operations” suited to their culture. Do we have fall-off of women at the various levels of our own management ladder? Gather the statistics. Figure out why.  Determine those career accommodations you can make for women during the child-rearing years. Ask yourself how you can encourage internal collaboration as a value? How can you enable women’s perspectives in decision making at all levels of our organization?

Commit to results.

Once you’ve got the outline of a “clean-up operation”, create Key Performance Measures that back up the initiatives you’re embarking upon. Keep in mind that if your organization has the statistical drop-off of women at each successive level of management, you’re embarking on a long-term fix – that has to take place concomitantly at every level of the organization – and that success will take years.

Why should you initiate the change? As stated previously, it’s an issue of business results. But, it’s more than that too.

If you can become an organization where women see that their differences are respected and valued, they’ll want to join your organization. Men will too.

I started ADVISA 32 years ago. 10 years ago Heather Haas became our COO and 2 years later became President. She has run the business since. Hers is a more collaborative, team-oriented style than mine was and our culture reflects that. Together, we’re an effective ying-yang combination. Over the last 10 years, 75% of the people who have joined our organization have come to us, wanting to join our team. 60% of our employees are women. She and the other women in our business were encouraged to mother and work. We have an accommodating culture. Long hours aren’t the necessary contribution to job success. Job success is.

We’re better because ADVISA has gender equity. You can be too. If you’re interested, we can help you get there. Give us a call.

Thanks for reading.

This article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal on December 21, 2018.