Gender diversity: Make men equal partners

Today gender diversity is a priority in every company. All CEO’s are concerned about it. It’s a well-known fact that the percentage of women drops dramatically as you go higher in the hierarchy pyramid. In some companies the ratio of women to men at entry level can be as high as 30-40%. But the same dwindles down to 1 or 2% at the upper levels.

In most organisations the gender diversity strategies have mainly focused on three areas: recruiting more women so there is a greater number of women in the employee base; training or equipping women with skills to be more effective as managers and leaders; and thirdly provide special benefits or facilities such as working from home or child care at work place to make work life a bit easier.

However, there are many subtle and not so subtle dynamics in every organisation which do not support and enable women to grow and stay. Most of the gender diversity initiatives do not deal with these dynamics. It is well understood that the dwindling numbers of women at higher levels aren’t because women are not capable, don’t have the drive or the desire to reach the higher levels.

In my experience there are two most important obstacles, present in almost every company, which prevent women from growing and staying in the workforce. They are: Organisation policies, processes, systems and structures which are biased towards men. The second, the men.

Most of my recent work experience is in the technology industry. I have seen and encountered many subtly biased practices which do not support growth of women. They are not intentionally working against women, but they are set in a paradigm that go against them. For example, in technology companies it is important to stay abreast of the changing trends. One way companies deal with this is to encourage employees to go for certification programs. It’s done after hours or on weekends so the “billability” and the revenue generation does not suffer. If a woman employee goes to her manager and says she is not able to dedicate time after work hours for certification and needs time during work hours to do so, most often the manager will tell her-” it is ok if you can’t. It’s just that we need to get some numbers up for learning metrics”. But guess what? Six months or a year later during the appraisals and promotion conversations, who gets promoted or given a higher rating? The one who has certification. Why? Not necessarily because he is more capable, but because he has demonstrated willingness to go above and beyond by working after hours, he has shown commitment to upgrading his skills and most importantly he has helped get the learning metrics up for the account.

Given the multi-site nature of many projects, often conference calls are scheduled in the evening with clients or “onsite” teams. Many women team members find it inconvenient to stay back in the office after hours to participate in the calls. They are not given the facility to dial from home or on the road. Project managers say it’s ok to not be on a call, as they do not want to be seen as pushing a woman colleague to stay back late. Then there is the need to arrange special transport.  Which poses its own set of headaches. So it’s easy to let it be. Gradually the women team members are not on top of the project details. They are not connected with rest of the team. Have no face time with the client means the women are in the background with little visibility. One can easily conclude the eventual consequences.

Working from home is encouraged and made possible for women who need time at home to nurse an infant or take care of an ailing family member. This is a very good policy. However I have heard from women who feel totally disconnected with the goings on, when they return after a break. The world shifts so rapidly, they end up playing lower roles and soon get dejected. Their performance suffers and the men managers now have the data they need to show that women after their break are not as productive. So they do not want them on their teams. Very few companies invest in resources or have systems to help women “re-enter” the organisation without a feeling of losing out.

I have seen project managers unwilling to recruit young women who are smart, capable and experienced. They would rather hire a man who may not be as good a fit as the female candidate. Why? Because the female candidate is engaged to get married. Of course we are not supposed to have all this personal information nor consider it for making hiring decisions.  So the logic goes- she will get married, then most probably will get pregnant and then will take long maternity leave. It’s also possible that once she gets married, she will move to Gurgaon to be with her husband. What if her in laws object to her working? Many possibilities. No one seem to be concerned about some other possibilities. The “stable man” who was hired may leave after eight months, because he has a better offer from another company. He may not be able to manage a large team in a collaborative multi-site environment because of his limited experience. Also what about the well-established statistics that show that there is better retention among women and greater commitment to the project and the organisation.

I am sure you have your own such stories and examples.

What if the organisations looked at a comprehensive and a systemic approach to gender diversity that deals with the deep underlying obstacles manifested in attitudes, systems and organisation practices? Here are my suggestions towards that approach:

1. Establish a shared vision: What if the leadership team together created a shared vision of what gender diversity means, why the organisation desires it and state the tangible and visible symbols of a successful gender diversity vision.  Involve a cross section of men and women in the exercise. And then establish the measures, define the behaviours that are expected and behaviours that are not tolerated along with the consequences. Once defined, communicate the vision and operationalise it.

2. Align systems and practices: Identify every policy, structure and practice that is subtly or not so subtly biased towards the male employees. Select 3-5 that would have the most impact and establish small cross functional teams to rewrite the policy or the system. Here the CEOs must demonstrate courage to go beyond the conventional, if they truly desire gender diversity.

3. Educate the men: Implement a well thought through mandatory awareness and education program for all male employees and particularly those playing managerial or leadership roles. The program must communicate the vision: the what, the why and engage them in the how of it. It should allow the men to see and experience the subtle prejudices driving policies and practices in the organisation. It should include critical awareness and the skills required to ensure no bias, either way, in managing results, leading teams and growing people.

All CEO’s, CFO’s and project managers know that addressing gender diversity systemically affects the bottom line in the short term. Training for women employees is an acceptable and easy initiative to implement. However, if the challenge of gender diversity is not addressed systemically and structurally, equipping women to be more effective will actually generate reverse consequences. Capable and ambitious women will get more frustrated as they will run into deep rooted obstacles living in every corner of the organisation. They will certainly leave and the organisation will be worse off, costing more to the company in the long run.

I believe women don’t need special training just as men don’t need special skill building sessions. Some focused capability building for men and women has its place. Women are not demanding special privileges and benefits. They want, like any human being, an organisation where they receive equitable and fair treatment. If the leadership genuinely desires, an environment can be created and sustained where women and men, both grow, stay and partner in building great organisations.

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