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Rachel Short



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The silent majority: Women in leadership


A quick trawl through the images used in the annual reports of most large corporates reveals the diversity of each organisation’s activities, employees and customer base. There is only one area where diversity appears elusive – the composition of the board.

The lack of women at the top of organisations has been traditionally framed as a supply problem. We are told there just aren’t enough suitably qualified, experienced women. But what if the issue is one of demand not supply? 

This provocative suggestion will not surprise anyone who has attended a gender-related event, where the audience can be guaranteed to be overwhelmingly female and the speakers clearly ‘preaching to the choir’.

Put simply, gender diversity translates as a woman’s issue that the vast majority of men don’t see as relevant to them or their workplace. The problem is not motivational but attitudinal. Overcoming men’s ambivalence to gender diversity involves addressing fear, ignorance and apathy. No quick and easy wins here.

Collective insecurity

Decades of social research shows that fear often sits just under the surface of collective insecurity and fuels hostility towards an ‘out group’. Sexism, whether institutional or individual, is not a word that often appears in the leadership literature. Yet harassment and bullying of women by male colleagues continues – highlighted most recently in the Opportunity Now 28-40 Report, where 12% of over 22,000 women said they had experienced sexual harassment at work in the last three years.  

Sexism implies consciously pejorative views about women, which very few men own up to. Instead a psychological distance exists between publicly disclosable and privately condoned sexist attitudes and behaviour – as illustrated by Richard Scudamore’s recent apology distinguishing between regret for offence caused by his “inappropriate remarks” and outright rejection of “wider discriminatory attitudes”.

Enlightened organisations are addressing unconscious bias and gender stereotypes that subtly shape individuals’ – and collectively the organisation’s – definition of meritocracy. But unconscious bias does not automatically evaporate on exposure. It can be pushed underground or traded off against pockets of positive bias. 

YSC’s recent research shows that while a few men actively campaign for more senior women in the workplace, most are either ambivalent about gender diversity or unaware of their personal contribution to a culture of inequality. Ignorance and avoidance – conscious or unconscious are correlated.

Sheryl Sandberg regularly cites that 64% of US male managers are reluctant to be alone in a room with a female colleague. Even in less litigious contexts, men are wary of appearing patronising or predatory when supporting a female colleague. Most, however, don’t see the need for any adjustment in their personal or professional behaviour towards female colleagues. Men are twice as likely as women to believe that opportunities for men and women are equal (Opp Now, 2014).

Apathy is understandable given the intractability of the issue. Despite the existence of financial incentives for achieving diversity objectives, male managers’ focus is sustained only as long as the extrinsic motivation applies.

Anecdotally, diverse teams disband as soon as the team leader’s focus moves on. Organisational sanctions don’t appear any more effective. Some organisations have diversity embedded within their operational risk framework – but this simply resuscitates lack of supply as a rationale for non-compliance.  

Positive attitudes

Personal proximity to working women results in more positive attitudes. Recent research shows that male attitudes towards women’s professional progress vary alongside shifts in their personal relationships. Desai, Chugh & Brief (2014) have shown that men (in the UK and US) in dual career marriages have more positive views about women in the workplace and are more likely to promote women. Dahl, Dezső, & Gaddis Ross (2014) have shown a link between marginally preferential pay for female employees working for CEOs with daughters.

US research (Catalyst, 2010) demonstrates that awareness is the first step to engaging men in addressing gender inequality.  Men most likely to connect with gender diversity need to be personally comfortable operating outside of masculine norms, have experience of a female mentor, and – most critically – a sense of fair play. A strong personal commitment to fairness is what distinguishes men who actively champion gender diversity.   

Since the 2008 financial crash, research on the economic outperformance and enhanced corporate governance of companies with more women at the top has fuelled a shift of political will towards gender diversity in the boardroom.

But it is not surprising that the most vocal campaigners for more inclusive organisations are the chairmen and CEOs driven by a personal connection with the issue – be that through their daughter’s experiences of attitudinal career barriers or their own minority group status.  

Organisational interventions that connect men in an up close and personal way with women’s experience – for example the 30% Club’s Cross Company Mentoring Scheme – appear a fruitful and effective way forward.

Six ways for men to overcome ambivalence towards women at work*:

  1. Approach gender diversity as an issue for men of all ages and all backgrounds. View men not only as beneficiaries of organisational diversity but as empowered bystanders who can make gender diversity a reality. Own the issue.
  2. If a colleague, friend, or family member is biased against female colleagues, or undermining of women in general, don't look the other way. Talk to him (or her) about it. Don't stay silent.
  3. Have the courage to look inwards. Try hard to understand how your own attitudes and actions might inadvertently be interpreted as sexist. Be self-honest.
  4. If you suspect a woman close to you is being treated unfairly, ask if you can help. Get involved.
  5. Be an ally to women working to end all forms of gender bias. Support organisational efforts to achieve gender diversity. Mentor aspiring female colleagues. Make a stand.
  6. Recognise and speak out against misogyny – even in the subtle forms of innuendo or banter. Stop colluding.

* Concept and ideas borrowed from Jackson Katz.

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Rachel Short


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