The possibility and potential of gender-inclusive business
May 19, 2016 Editor 0
As formative voices for THNK’s in-company programs, THNK partners Rajiv Ball and Natasha Bonnevalle share their thoughts on what organizations can gain by actively embracing diversity. Given that the corporate advantage is so widely proven, why is progress on gender inclusivity still so slow? What can organizations gain by co-creating truly balanced teams?
When teams embrace a wide array of perspectives and leadership styles, performance surges. Put divergent thinkers next to convergent thinkers; introverts next to extroverts. Seek out voices from different cultures, backgrounds, perspectives, and genders. Play with deductive and then inductive reasoning; with a linear process and then an iterative one. Blend nurturing and empathic styles with action-oriented and task-focused profiles. The more colourful the diversity of an organization, the more fresh its ideas. The more balanced an executive team, the better decisions it will make—and the more its capacity to transcend complex challenges will grow.
Diversity results in creative clash and flow. Clash and flow results in innovation. And innovation is a vital necessity to stay relevant in today’s fast-changing world. THNK works with the world’s most forward-thinking organizations to help them take action on this truth: that nothing is well-served—people, profits, planet—by one-dimensional approach.
Gender-inclusivity in business is a massive opportunity
Countless studies point to one clear conclusion: a higher proportion of women in corporate leadership increases shareholder value, employee engagement, and societal impact. The evidence is overwhelming.
Change is being triggered by increased scrutiny, but that scrutiny hasn’t resulted in rapid change. Though the majority of university graduates are female, the number of women in organizations falls dramatically by the middle and senior levels of management—with very few companies reaching the 30 percent female representation considered critical for competitive advantage.
The move towards parity between women and men in senior leadership is painstakingly slow. At this rate, it will take decades to reach gender symmetry.
What’s missing so far? The men
A dialogue around inclusiveness often begins with good intentions. Corporations ring-fence budget for female leadership development programs. ‘We see untapped potential,’ someone says. And then the room fills up with women to talk about it. Aside from the fact that it’s dubious to presume that women need more help than men, it ignores that fact that men—the de facto executive class of most corporations today—are just as essential in that room as women.
A United Nations report on gender inclusiveness noted that when the western world first defined women’s rights, they were defined in the context of men. We’ve done it this way ever since. We take male problems, add a female skin, and come to solutions based upon a male standard. Men have become the measure of all things. And a woman’s equality is judged by her proximity to his measure.
This isn’t reimagining at all.
In order to recast today’s organization—which finds its roots in Henry Ford’s 1920s assembly line, as designed by men and for men—the world needs men as allies in the room.
And yet male awareness of the lack of gender diversity in the workplace is low. In one of our recent in-company leadership programs, it was the only woman in a group of 21 senior leaders who raised inclusiveness as a topic worth exploring. Why? Because no matter how well-intentioned they are as individuals, gender-balance is simply not on the radar of male leaders. They’ve never had to consider it because the status quo is already in their favour.
If you ask 100 male executives if they’ve talked about (or even thought about) gender inclusiveness at work—especially among one another, as opposed to with female colleagues or spouses—the vast majority would say that it doesn’t even figure on their agendas. Ask them: Has your growth and advancement been limited or compromised in any way because you are male? An educated man would have to say no, no matter how uncomfortable or reticent.
The dialogue that will usher in a more inclusive world includes everyone. In Men’s Lib!, the New York Times calls inclusivity ‘gender symmetry’: “The way forward, we believe, is for men to embrace and adapt to the new, more androgynous world.”
Beyond macho: co-creating a new generation of leaders
Although there have been encouraging signals from many sectors—think about tech and the hundreds of initiatives there—progress is slow. The silver-backed gorilla of the corporate world is still characterized as decisive, assertive and independent—archetypal masculine qualities. Meanwhile, those who exhibit characteristics attached to the feminine archetype risk being seen as irrelevant or weak. Leaders reproduce leaders who are similar to themselves, and this is how the cultural status quo—with its little regard for empathy, humility, and patience—is maintained.
And yet, there are plenty of men—especially high-performers—who have long since eclipsed a macho style of leadership. For them, what leadership narrative resonates? Ford in the 1920s? The wolves of Wall Street in the 1980s? The pressure cooker of the internet boom? The world has changed dramatically, but some leadership philosophies, values and mindsets have not necessarily kept pace.
At the brink of the fourth industrial revolution, the counterpoint is futureproofing: fostering leaders with a whole new set of affinities. If organizations pay attention, everything points to a step change. Not just because it’s time to right wrongs, but because during a time of monumental change, we need every possible advantage.
When an organization embraces both its masculine and feminine traits, it co-creates a new narrative. We certify our own new generation of leaders who are decisive, patient, assertive, humble, independent, and empathetic. The chorus turns from This is what you are supposed to be to This is what we could be.
Inclusivity is a radical reimagination
Gender-balancing is new territory, and every company is unique. To sustain real change as opposed to just paying lip service, we resolve to test and refine best practices as we learn. Many factors are at play as we iterate towards the best way forward—industry, geo-political culture, corporate culture, legacy systems and processes, and legacy dominance assumptions.
Being an inclusive corporation isn’t a small correction or a quick fix, and it’s not brought about by female-centric initiatives. It’s about completely re-imagining what a corporation of the future could look like, from the starting point of a blank sheet. On that blank sheet, a question: what could an organization’s working culture be if it embraced both masculine and feminine characteristics?
The truth is, we don’t know the answer to that question yet. It’s never been done. Men and women have not yet had the license to co-create and re-invent together, as equals, on a broad scale. The values of equality, however they may manifest, have never been incorporated up front. But we owe it to ourselves, both as men and women, to begin.
As you consider your corporation’s initiatives on gender inclusiveness, ask yourself:
Are you clear about the opportunity that gender inclusivity represents for profits, people and society? At the current pace of your efforts, how inclusive will your company be in one, three, or ten years?
How does your organization engage men in working towards gender inclusiveness? Are you tapping into the co-creation potential of both female and male allies already within your team?
To what extent is your corporation embracing both its culturally or archetypal masculine/feminine traits? Is there a chance that your company’s aspirational narrative of leadership is imbalanced in tone?
Knowing that embracing gender inclusiveness requires a radical reimagining of today’s corporations, how far are you willing to go?
Rajiv Ball and Natasha Bonnevalle are both partners at THNK School of Creative Leadership, and former McKinsey consultants. Rajiv is the proud father of two girls in the early years of high school, both of whom hope to enter a grown-up world in which their talents will be fully recognized in spite of their gender. Natasha tells her two sons and daughter that they should follow their passion, and hopes to help create a world in which all three will be equally able to do this.
At THNK, we’re always seeking new voices to join in the conversation around a new leadership paradigm. Let us know what you think, and get in touch for in-company programs that help corporations gain the advantage of a truly diverse team. For more information, contact us.
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