“Where are all the guys?” Why men avoid entering the gender parity debate.

Guest blog by David Levenson*

This article has been a long time in gestation – novels have been written quicker. But its development, alongside the evolution of my views, has given me the confidence (yes, men need confidence too) to write for Voice At The Table. It is also the story of why the men who should be publicly leading on gender equality mostly stay silent.

The inescapable conclusion is that men are too scared to engage on a subject that is so often regarded by them as a hot potato. Alternatively, we just don’t get it – we don’t see it as a problem, certainly not in a business or work context. It ends up that women’s issues are for women alone to comment on.

However, what is needed here is less gender politics and more honest conversation.

To the women who I hope are reading this, my message is simple – get the men in the room, onto the social media feeds and get them talking. It’s time to engage the guys in the gender parity debate and stop them from finding reasons to opt out.

So, here is the tale of my journey through diversity politics and how it relates to the wider issue of male engagement.

Fifteen months ago, I stumbled upon an article by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox of  the consultancy 20-first in the Harvard Business Review. Her argument that gender equality is more than a “women’s issue” rang a bell for me and made me think about my position and indeed my role in helping to achieve parity for women on pay and in the boardroom.

Moreover, it convinced me that successful gender balancing requires convincing the majority of your employees that it’s a good idea. And that cultural change needs to be led from the top. Now, the majority of CEOs are male, so it follows that the equality agenda needs to be pushed… by men.

Having absorbed the article, I ran my eye down the list of comments on the LinkedIn posting that had accompanied the article.  Dozens of comments, all from women.  So, plaintively, I added a thought of my own – C’mon on guys, where are you?

As it turned out, my plea didn’t disappear into the ether.  Other men started to appear and contribute views in the discussion thread.  For me, this first tiny venture into the discussion was the start of a process which has culminated in this article.

Now, I may not be typical; I spent the best part of twenty-five years as a finance director in social housing during which time I worked for women CEO’s, and with many female executive colleagues and board members. It is fair to say that the experience of diverse groups generally, and women in particular, has been better than in most industries.  However, it is instructive to listen to the words of Terrie Alafet, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing and one of the sector’s most high profile women executives, in 2016:

“We know from our own research that as a sector, housing is actually more diverse than average…But at the top of our organisations, in our boards and senior teams, it’s a different story.”

It requires more from CEO’s than just a commitment to balance their executive teams, as Ms Wittenberg-Cox suggests.  It needs recognition that there is a duality of interest in gender equality.  Men have a stake in the decisions that women make about their roles as partners, parents and providers.  Economies and societies work best where there is openness and accountability for the contributions made by women and men in the workplace.

I like to think, notwithstanding all that the #MeToo movement necessarily represents and has had to undertake during the past year, that we have moved on from the battle of the sexes that characterised 20th century feminism and its machoistic counterpart.  Today’s workplace is less divisive and more co-operative.

But we are not there yet as all the statistics show and there is still a cultural battle, if not all-out war, to be fought and won.  And pivotal to this are the men who continue to occupy most top seats at board tables and in executive teams and who should constantly send out the message that striving for gender equality at the apex of companies, financial institutions, professions and public services is in the interests of all of us.

* David Levenson is an accredited executive coach and career strategy coach.  He founded Coaching Futures in 2016 with the aim of transforming people’s lives, careers and goals.

David is one of the co-creators of Raising Roofs.  He is passionate about the workplace of the future and fascinated by how technology is rapidly changing the way we work.

Merit is Biased

wooden cartHow many times have you heard women say that they don’t want to be promoted based on “targets” or “quotas” because that undermines their meritorious credentials as a candidate? Well, guess what:  merit-based processes are in fact biased in favour of men!  Despite the fact that we try to level the playing field in the work place by introducing processes to make promotions and other work-related decisions more objective, they can, in fact, have the reverse effect by activating more gender bias.

I’ll explain.

Given that a merit-based system prefers candidates with more “merit” for the job, there is a latent layer of discrimination embedded in this system.  Merit-based systems are based on the assumption that merit can be achieved equally by men and women – a preconceived notion that is unlikely to be true.

The assumption is based on (1) the belief that men and women have the same attributes and are therefore starting from the same base line – not the case, and (2) the assessment criteria that is set to judge a person on merit applies equally to men and women – again, not the case.    After all, if these assumptions are true, and considering the high levels of achievement by women at universities and professional schools, why are women still underrepresented at senior levels of organisations?

Research from the US suggest that focusing on merit leads to biased outcomes.  This research was prompted by the observation that, despite having introduced performance pay and merit-based reward practices (with the aim of making advancement and remuneration opportunities more objective), companies continued to experience the same levels of inequality in personnel-related decisions as before the introduction of these measures.  The research found that in situations where merit was emphasised as a basis for selection and performance appraisal decisions, men were more likely to be selected, and more likely to be awarded higher salary increases, compared to equally rated women.

What we can glean from this study is that, although organisations strive to make unbiased decisions, meritorious processes do not appear to have successfully stripped out gender stereotypes and unconscious bias.

If merit is to be interpreted as “competence” or “capability” specific to the requirements of a particular role, and if we also agree (on the basis of research and evidence) that women are perceived as interpersonally warmer and less competent than men, and men are perceived as less interpersonally warm and more competent than women, then we might start to understand how meritocracy might work against equality and impartiality.   When a person is asked to make a merit-based decision, these sub-conscious perceptions (warm vs competent) are activated and men and women are perceived to differ in their degree of competence or capability by the decision maker. Once activated, the stereotype unconsciously influences the decision in favour of men based on performance criteria that are packed with competence-related characteristics.

There is a study that backed up this thinking and found a way to overcome this unconscious process:  A research conducted with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra involving blind auditions.  Based on audible auditions only, the percentage of women represented in the concert body went from 10% to 45% of new hires.

This orchestral example is extremely enlightening. Selectors had long insisted that the lack of women musicians in the orchestra was not based on discrimination but on the fact that the preferred playing style was more predominant among male musicians. Blind auditions have refuted this line of argument quite clearly.  Hopefully, it is now clear that the different playing styles argument was based on a gender stereotype, a stereotype that was “turned off” through the simple process of not being able to see the musician.  In other words, if we discount gender as part of the equation, women appear to have just as much “merit” as men.

It would be great if we could try this “blind audition” approach in organisations, but, unfortunately, this might be an unrealistic and impractical aim.  What we can take away from this, however, is that people – men and women alike – are overestimating the egalitarian nature of merit-based systems and do women a disservice by discounting other equalising systems – like targets, for example – on the basis of merit.  We should all keep in mind that a focus on merit does not protect decision-makers from bias and may even make them more susceptible to it.  Otherwise, we will simply continue to proliferate the status quo.

How do men benefit from women at work?

parisI recently had a conversation with a male colleague whose wife gave up her very lucrative professional job to look after their children and, when she decided to return to the work force, she went to work in an environment in which she could never match her previous earning potential or career aspirations.  Digging a bit deeper, my colleague explained that, when they first got married, his wife was an up-and-coming professional, working for a prestigious financial institution, with aspirations for her own career progression and growth.  Then, when she fell pregnant with their first child, she felt ostracised and actively (albeit inconspicuously) squeezed out of her team and her job.  This evidenced itself by assuming she had neither interest nor energy to work on high-profile projects, regarding her as not pulling her weight in the team, and changing behaviour towards her to such an extent that she no longer felt welcome in the team and the organisation.  No-one in the company stood up for her and other than to confront the situation through formal means, the only sensible solution to her was to leave the work force.  The wife’s confidence was shattered to such an extent that when she decided to resume her career, a career in the financial sector – or any other corporate environment – was no longer an attractive proposition.

My colleague told me this story when I shared with him what I had heard about another young colleague in our company who was expecting her first child and facing unprecedented difficulties and challenges from her previously supportive line manager.   My colleague was dismayed by this behaviour and stated that, not only is this appalling behaviour towards the women in question, it is detrimental to the company, and most of all, detrimental to marriages.  My colleague wanted very much to share the financial burden of having a family in London with his once equally capable wife, but has wound up in a situation where he is the sole bread winner, fearing to compromise his job, given financial family burdens.  The colleague felt resentful towards his wife’s old manager who pulled the rug from under her feet and the company that let it happen.  The colleague was now in a position where he could no longer pursue his passions, share in the upbringing of their children, or – being the main breadwinner of the family – hope for any kind of work-life balance.

This story opened my eyes to the exponential impact that corporate treatment of women might have on society.  I realised that it’s not only women who might aspire to a reasonable work-life balance; more and more men recognise the value of sharing a home life with their spouse a more fulfilling proposition than dedicating their entire existence to the corporate beast.  The generation behind me is certainly looking for this kind of balance, as other male colleagues have and continue to demonstrate.  Yet corporate culture doesn’t recognise the fact that the kind of things that women are traditionally known to fight for – flexible yet meaningful work so that they can attend to more than just one priority – are also secret aspirations of today’s professional males. Unfortunately, as things stand, it wouldn’t do for a professional man to admit this to his line manager or even another male colleague as he would instantly be deemed uncommitted to his career and company.  But I have no doubt that these conversations do take place among friends and families.

I therefore strongly believe that all the changes that we, professional women, are fighting for in the corporate world, will eventually benefit not only our own gender but also our male friends and colleagues.  And the sooner the old-fashioned corporate thinking changes, the sooner will companies be able to start building a work place and work force that is equipped for the future.

Women’s Contribution to the Economy Cannot be Overlooked

dahlias

Governments tell us that the economy must not forget to tap into a growing pool of buying power: that of working women.  Last year, the Economist pointed out that

In the next decade nearly 1 billion women are likely to enter the global labour force. But their economic potential is largely unrealised. According to a report by Booz & Company, a consultancy, if female employment rates matched those of men, GDP would increase by 5% in America and 9% in Japan by 2020. The impact would be even larger for developing countries, home to most of the world’s women who lack adequate education and support (social and political). Increasing female employment would increase GDP significantly in countries like India and Egypt, where female labour-participation rates are below 30%. These countries rank low in Booz’s index of women’s economic empowerment.

But in order to realise this economic potential, organisations must gradually embrace a cultural change that will make the working environment an attractive proposition to the pool of female talent. By this I mean the following:

Flexible Working
The number one reason that women cite for not working in the corporate world is the lack of flexibility that corporate culture affords women workers. Let’s not deny the fact that women are and will likely continue to be the primary carers for their families. This means that working women do and will likely continue to have conflicting (at best!) priorities towards both their families and their jobs. If women operate in a world that does not allow them to carefully balance their responsibilities in such a way that each one of their priorities is realised, women will simply give up on the less flexible (and, to them, less important) one: their jobs.
To avoid this, businesses need to rethink their strategies and culture and ask themselves: what is it really that they don’t like about flexible working. Once that’s determined, and after some soul searching, businesses need to decide whether these reasons are a justifiable business cost. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, the loss of opportunity to employ a woman in a flexible arrangement translates to a business cost – in the form of replacement/recruitment costs, costs of training and investment in a new employee and the potential repeated cost if the lost job were to go to another woman.
In my experience, when managers face up to the detrimental aspects of not embracing flexible working, they quickly realise the potential business cost and change their attitude. And when that happens, business start to realise that “flexible working” isn’t a dirty word but a necessity that pays dividends.
Cultural Differences
We have all heard of unconscious bias – the brain’s ability to short-cut judgments based on previous experiences. Unconscious bias is one of the main reasons that the top layers of companies resemble a club or brotherhood the members of which are (in thinking terms) facsimiles of each other. Companies are gradually starting to realise that this kind of leadership isn’t necessarily good for business, as the lack of diversified thought may lead (and has in many cases) to unsound decision making. But how to change this?
One of the best ways to change is to support and empower women to take up some of those positions at the top of organisations. To develop the pipeline, companies need to change their views of women; they need to realise that women communicate differently; that women are not as likely to put themselves forward for promotion as men, despite being equally as capable and qualified; that women’s negotiation style is different; that speaking softly doesn’t mean women aren’t sure of what they’re saying. In other words, companies need to realise that there are “cultural” differences between men and women and not “penalise” them for these differences.
Boost Confidence
On average, women tend to be less confident about their abilities than men. They regularly (statistically-speaking) second-guess themselves and their decisions. This often leads to a fear of saying what they’re thinking, of going for the promotion or a new job, or of asking for what they believe they deserve.
If companies want to realise the most from their female talent, they should consider investing in support for women, such as mentoring programs, coaching and other developmental training that increases confidence and profile. Sponsorship programs have been proven to be very successful in promoting women. Cross-industry mentoring has also proven successful. Teaching women how to network and leverage their networks would also improve the confidence game.

In summary, in order to encourage women to work and participate in the economy , there are a number of measures that organisations should embrace to pave the way for women to take part in the game and, thus, in the economy.