One size does not fit all

Barrack Obama presented his new team, but forgot to adjust the podium

1st of December 2008 Hillary Clinton was nominated the new Secretary of State in Obama’s government launching in January 2009. Obama proudly presented his new team on a press conference.

However, Obama’s person in charge of practicalities must have forgotten the fact that women tend to be slightly shorter than men. While the male newcomers looked brilliant on the podium, the women appeared awkward.

The morale: You do not want someone provided lots of power and influence looking less bright than they are.

How does this apply to your organisation?

One size does not fit all

Gender equality in the workplace is no rocket science

Kjersti Løken Stavrum
Kjersti Løken Stavrum

There are seven ways forward for any organisation interested in improving gender equality in the workplace and a company’s competitive edge.

The competitive edge will improve simply through the fact that when clever people are allowed to develop without being restricted by for instance outdated tribalism (see point 4 for further explanation) ideas willl prosper and innovation can bring companies forward.

Chief Editor Kjersti Løken Stavrum of A-Magasinet, a major Norwegian weekly, suggests seven ways forward for any organisation interested in challenging career paths held by women and men. Her seven headlines was the baseline for her speech on a seminar about strategies for diversity in companies arranged by the consultancy Great Place to Work Norway in November 2007 in Oslo. I’ve stolen her headlines with pride and elaborated on the explanations. Comments are welcome.

1. Don’t expect a female executive to demonstrate a specifically female leadership style

It is old fashioned to expect a female leader to enter the corporate scene with her a whole specific kind of leadership style. Women are individuals just as men are. Linking a leader’s gender to his or her leadership style is reducing a person’s actions to their sex. That’s pretty close to sexism. You don’t want to be a part of that. You’d like to attract any best talent independently of their sex. Which leads us to the second point:

2. Women are first and foremost individuals – not women

We tend to attach the ‘gender’ or ‘specific’ label to women and the ‘norm’ label to men. Even though a lot of people view men as the standard for all comparison, the individual differences within the sex tend to span a greater variety than the difference between men and women. Thus, you’d like to spot each individal’s unique contribution as clever individuals and don’t get caught up in their gender. Nevertheless, there are specific gender differences playing a part in corporate life:

3. Women tend to have a different experiential background than men

Boys and girls are mostly brought up differently by their parent. Social activitites, spare time preferences and society’s expectations tend to differ towards boys and girls. One example may help illustrate this point: The gender divide in vocational training as well as within academic training are very much divided by gender. Raise a hand everyone who knows more female carpenters than male ones. There are globally more female nurses than male ones, as well as civil engineers (mostly men). So you’d like to bring in different people in your company who can trigger some lush innovative capabilities. Suddenly you may also find yourself having more intriguing meetings and lunches.

4. Modern organisations abolish outdated ‘tribalism’

Every company brings forward a corporate culture. Managing a modern organisation of, say knowledge workers, you’d like to make sure that the smart and productive people stick around. You’ll have to make sure that there is no destructive corporate culture alienating clever people with different ideas than the established ones.

5. Diversity is about developing your listening skills and training your vision

Learning to listen properly to what another person has on her mind can truly be challenging. However, that’s what diversity skills are much about. Listen, listen, open your ears. At the same time you have to be aware that your eyes often tricks you into linking previously established patterns of understanding, thus serving as obstacles for paving way for new interpretations. Therefore, be sure to pay more attention to your ears and less to your eyes.

6. Diversity paves the way for career paths visible to everyone

Transparency about what makes people climb the career ladder is normally hard to practice. It requires a lot of courage to be frank about why one person is promoted instead of others. Nonetheless it should be the only way forward in order to make visible to the talented crowd of people working for you what kind of behaviour is rewarded.

7. Practicing the diversity ethos brings forward reason

When an organisation starts to actually incorporate diversity practices as something natural and logical change will enter. Even more than change, people will find it sensible to reason why change is necessary, why difference make sense at that we all grow through being challenged on our assumptions.

Gender equality in the workplace is no rocket science

Improving gender equality in the workplace

Thats' what he does for a living

Send fathers home and mothers to work.

Tim Smedley at People Management suggests that the solution to end gender inequality in the workplace is to send fathers home and mothers out to work. He’s on to something.

The key argument I’d like to highlight is the following: There are three elements which are closely interlinked and that need to be seen as a total in order to  drive through social change in our societies. The three elements are put in place by three players:

  1. The government
  2. The corporation
  3. The individual parent

When these players find ways to make up a team, social change takes place.

First, social welfare incentives supporting both fathers and mothers investing time in raising their children is the founding blocks in order to attract both parents to spend time with their children. Such incentives may encourage more fathers and mothers to achieve a better balance between the way they share their time at work and rearing their children. Men are way too often the main bread winners and women tend to sacrifice their career ambitions in order to take care of their kids. Let’s call it default by gender.

Nevertheless, trusting the government to be progressive is risky business. The Economist brings an illustrative point to this, pointing to the current situation in Germany (see chart for further information).

So, HR and executives, get out on the field and change the rules of the game, please. That’s where the corporations come into the picture.

Thus, enter HR. How can they change the game?

1. Encourage fathers to take time off work and seize responsibility at home. Yes, that’ll create an outcry. But it’s fascinating how hints and suggestions can gain a large impact when fathers actually start spending time with their kids.

2. Make sure to thrill corporate stake holders’ interest in how the times they are a changing: Corporations must adapt to new social realities, unless they want to see their talented people move to competition who offer more flexible employee relations.

3. Allow flexible hours for talented people: A lot of mothers and fathers want to do a career AND be caring parents. Employees taking responsibility at home have proved to deliver at work as well.

Third, the last player is the individual: Fathers need to realise that they must fight for their right to be full-time dads. Women have fought for access to male-only arenas within all sectors of work during the 20th century. Likewise men must stand up and seize a different part than their historically ‘work only’ part.

A brief look at how much women have struggled to gain influence in the public space, one can imagine the need for a revolution in order to bring men forward.

I’m an optimist, though. Scandinavian countries have managed to bring fathers home and women out working. There are good prospects for a similar change to take place in other parts of Europe.

Want to read more?

  • Check out my summary of the brilliant book Why Women Mean Business (2008). Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland suggest companies need to grasp how their markets and talent pools have changed, requiring new angles for surviving today’s business landscape.
  • Take a look at my post on talent management as the Big Four global accounting companies can teach other corporations to understand how gender shapes people and companies: Accounting for good people.

[Picture enclosed above is stolen with pride from Flickr, a brilliant photo sharing site. Photo title: Rio, Teddy u. Christoph / Originally uploaded by .eti]

Improving gender equality in the workplace

In what sense do women differ from men in the corporate world?


ze 50mm F/1:1.2 / Originally uploaded by ZespiraL

I guess it all depends on the eye watching. However, the authors of the book ‘Why women mean business’ (published this year) aim to provide some cues explaining how women differ from men (generally speaking). Below is a brief summary of what I think is their main message on this topic.

1. Women think their boss will spot their talent
‘There is a deep-rooted belief among women that if they do a good job they will be promoted, recognised and rewarded.’ (Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland, 2008:228). Women believe they don’t have to tell their boss how good they are. Any executive would find this attitude naïve. Thus, in order to keep women talents onboard there is a need for formalising performance management, leadership reviews, etc.

2. Women don’t like the ‘politics’ of organisational power structures
Women tend to have a bigger discomfort with power structures in organisations than men do. So they refuse to get involved. Women may view these struggles more as ‘self-promotion and power-grabbing’ (ibid:228.) than actually getting the job done. Thus, they clear off power struggles more quickly than men do. In order to facilitate change, companies need to train women in realising that politics are a part of their job description. Simultaneously, managers need to be aware of the need to support women in the process of increasing their degree of dealing with politics.

3. Women value authenticity
According to a survey of 516 executive and professional women by Aspire, a UK consultancy on coaching and leadership development, these are the top motivating factors, in order of importance:

• Making a difference
• Being challenged
• Believing in their company’s direction
• A sense of satisfaction in their team
• Recognition

Then it makes sense that ‘being authentic’ collides with the need of being politic at times, that is, playing a game and hiding your thoughts and feelings.

4. Women’s careers are not linear
While men’s career tend to be more or less a straight line going upwards, women’s careers are not linear. They tend to look more like an M shaped curve. The ‘valley’ in the middle is normally due to them taking care of small children for a while. Naturally, women’s careers peak a decade or so later than men’s careers. So, expecting women to be fast trackers in their 30s will normally happen less often than men. However, if a company solely believes that talented managers only can rise to stardom during their 30s, they must rethink this stand. You’ll have to stretch the ‘bandwidth’ of women career timeline. It may start later due to many of them taking the biggest share of child rearing, because their husbands are busy building their own career.

Do you want to know more?

In what sense do women differ from men in the corporate world?

Make your company gender-bilingual

Business and Gender: Men are natives and women are second-generation immigrants in the corporate world.

The native vs second-generation immigrants metaphors are taken from a recently published book by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland. Their book, Why women mean business: understanding the emergence of our next economic revoloution, published in 2008, discusses the rising economic revolution of women in the corporate world. They claim today’s corporations lose out on crucial business opportunities when they ignore women’s power as talent and market opportunities. Their solution to the problem is to enable companies to become gender-bilingual. According to the authors, one way of starting is to rethink their preconceptions of men and women. The starting point is to consider the following three perspectives:

1. Gender is a business issue, not a women’s issue

Getting the gender balance right in companies are often mixed up with good intentions going astray. Highlighting gender or promoting women as leaders should not become an issue for the diversity crowd. Companies should rather start thinking of women as ignored talents and not as ‘poor women, they deserve better’. Talents are what make business go forward these days. Or halt. Thus, the question is rather how can companies attract, develop and retain their talent, the scarsest of scarse resources? Which talent pool is most widely overlooked? Hm, perhaps women? Take a look around in your own organisation. Who makes progress and who trails behind? You’ll most probably discover that the main share of people in higher positions are men.

2. Getting the right leadership team

Another challenge is to have management teams capable of both grasping the complexity of their business surroundings, creating a good dialogue leading up to the right decisions. When companies start doing commerce in a multicultural, heterogeneous and unpredictable market context it may be a good idea to consider whether a homogeneous top management team is the best equipped band of brothers to carry out this task. If there are not space for newcomers (you may consider them strangers if you like) on the top, at least do something to breed a undercurrent of diverse and strong talents with heteregenous experiences and backgrounds.

3. Women represent half the market

Look into your customer base and you’ll soon discover that there is an incredible underuse of the market potential. Start counting the money to be earned and you’ll start figuring out new concepts that may attract women customers.

Therefore: Become a gender-bilingual company

The three headlines above may serve as a starting point for considering how to understand the landscape your company is maneuvring.

Could it be that corporations generally are blind to the fact that men and women act differently in the business world? A widely held preconception explaining why there are few women in executive posts is that ‘women don’t want power’. Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland suggest there may be a metaphor putting this preconception in perspective:

Men who want power usually push for it, navigating organisational politics as natives of a familiar homeland. (Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland, 2008:224.

The authors suggest that even though men tend to push for power more often than women, ‘does that mean they (women) are ill suited to exercising it?’ (ibid:11) Well, one metaphor helping to understand the current state of affairs goes as follows:

Women are not yet natives of the business world. They are like second-generation immigrants, with one foot in the culture of business and one foot in the culture of ‘women’ (ibid:224).

To what degrees does managers take this into account when they create their strategies for attracting people? To what degree is gender sensitivity at all on any corporate agenda as anything else than a phrase somewhere in the annual report’s section on corporate social responsibility?

There is an elephant in the room

Despite the fact that companies are facing a talent shortage, few seems to realise that the solution to the problem is staring them in the face every day: making better use of women’s potential. ‘The situation is akin to that of the “elephant in the room”, the big truth that people prefer to ignore.’ (ibid:29) That is what happened when The Economist, a weekly journal, ran a special survey on talent, issued the 7th of October 2006.

The journal makes a thorough investigation into the matter, in their usually committed and critically acclaimed manner. However, as the Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland point out: curiously, ‘[w]omen were not mentioned as a solution to the problem.’ (ibid:29).

Watch a sligthly pretencious video interview with the authors at the book’s official web site:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Why Women Mean Business“, posted with vodpod

Want to know more?

Make your company gender-bilingual

Discover women talent, improve company performance

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland explains how corporations can improve their performance dramatically by discovering and making use of women talent.

The interview is somewhat tacky: the last word is that ‘It’s about high time that the CEO start to get serious about sex’. Their publishing house could have facilitated a better elevator pitch than that. Too bad, because the book truly presents an insightful analysis into the maze of problems women are facing when they want a career.

Think. Act. Keep going.

The best part of the book, however, is their input on how companies can transform insight into practice in order to change corporate laziness on taking women managers on board. This is described in seven steps in chapter 5, ‘Seven steps to successful implemenation’:

  1. Awaken your leadership team
  2. Define the business case
  3. Let people express resistance
  4. Make it a business issue, not a women’s issue
  5. Make changes before making noise
  6. Don’t mix up the messages
  7. Give it a budget, not just volunteers

Well, that’s no revelation, I guess. However, the authors explain well the nitty gritty part of these advices. I’ll get back to that in a forthcoming post.

Discover women talent, improve company performance