fix women double bind

I recently had a phone conversation with a former colleague from my executive days. My friend shared with me two things. Putting them together, I heard clear evidence of how people are missing the mark in trying to achieve gender diversity in leadership. I heard more about (a) how people understand the business value of gender diversity, (b) they don’t know how to get it, and (c) they are still trying to “fix” women instead of eliminating the barriers to gender diversity. Those barriers arise from unconscious bias.

My friend has been very successful in the business world, leading manufacturing operations and serving as COO of a large global company. She is now searching for a CEO job. Meanwhile she works on the initiatives of two major universities that are working on the issue of gender diversity. She told me that both groups are focused on “helping women.” I.e., they focus on advising women on how to navigate the work world as it is – not on helping change the work world so it works for more people (including women as well as men).

This approach misidentifies the problem as a problem with women. The solution is not in fixing women. It is in making people aware of the unconscious gender biases in the workplace – so they no longer create the obstacles that keep women from making their full contribution.

My friend went on to update me on her CEO search. She told me that, in one interview, she “misread the cues.” She thought she should talk and act in a way that was friendly and non-threatening. “I blew it,” she said. I should have been aggressive and confident. This is a perfect example of the double bind. If women are assertive, they may be seen as pushy; if they are not, they may not be seen as “leadership material.” Women have to walk a tightrope that is not required of men.

She also told me that, in more than one situation, she has been one of two finalists for a position. In most of these, her competition was a man. And in each of these, the hiring executive “felt more comfortable” with the man even though her credentials and strengths were superior. This illustrates the obstacle that I call the “comfort principle” – people preferring to work and play with people like themselves. This creates obstacles for women because those with the power to hire and promote are still primarily male.

Women work overtime to get it “just right” in walking that double bind tightrope. They spend energy trying to build comfort. We can keep telling women how to get through these forms of unconscious bias. I suggest we’ll have more success if we place our energy on helping men and women see their unconscious biases and remove obstacles like the double bind and comfort principle.

What ideas do you have for shifting the focus from “fixing women” to bringing awareness to unconscious gender biases?


goal realistic 2

I read a lot on the issue of “gender equality.” My mission is about helping leaders capture the documented benefits of gender diversity. I help leaders attack the reasons for the slow pace of achieving gender diversity (see my article on the London School of Economics Business Review). The issue is getting more and more attention. We are almost past the point of needing to talk about its business case.

I am more frequently seeing terms like “gender equity,” “gender parity” and “gender balance.” For example, the report by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2015, looked at the (tremendous) economic value of “gender parity.” That report concluded that, if the (slow) rate of progress over the last three years, continues, it will take 25 years to reach “gender parity” at the senior VP level and more than 100 years to reach parity in the C-suite.

So, is “parity” (meaning an equal number of men and women) the right goal? Leadership gurus tell us that the goals that inspire people the most are measurable, time-bound and attainable. They must be currently out of reach – but realistic over the long term. (Even 25 years is very long-term; in 100 years most of us will not be alive to know the outcome.) In the 2010 census, women were 50.8% of the U.S. population. Is it realistic to think that, even within the next century, women will represent 50% of every level of business, including the C-suite? Is this an “attainable” goal? I don’t think so.

I talk a lot about the barriers that keep women from the top. They include unconscious bias or “mind-sets like the “double bind,” gendered definitions of leadership and the “comfort principle.” Even if we could magically eliminate all unconscious gender bias, other factors would make parity unlikely. Bias is a big reason women aren’t proportionally represented at the top. But there are other key reasons.

First is the free choice to put family ahead of career. Second is how women don’t “lean in.” Third is distaste for what life is, or is perceived to be, at the top. The latter point is the focus of Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive, in which she points out the toll on our health and well-being of our current ways of working. All of these do and will cause some women (and some men) to prefer life outside the C-suite.

The study The Power of Parity by McKinsey Global Institute points out the economic value of gender parity. But the study recognizes that parity may not be the right goal. The study shows three scenarios – (a) the “business-as-usual” scenario, which assumes only historical growth, (b) the “best-in-region” scenario, assuming that each county matches the gender parity results of the best performer in its region, and (c) the “full-potential scenario.”

The executive summary of the report explains why the less ambitious scenario, scenario (b), is considered. It notes that the full-potential scenario is “unlikely to materialize within a decade” for two reasons. First, the “barriers hindering women” are unlikely to be fully addressed within that (very short) time frame. And second, “participation is ultimately a matter of personal choice.”

I am not at all dis-heartened by my conclusion that full gender parity is unlikely in my life time. I respect the reasons people freely choose a path different from the path to the C-suite. But I remain committed to removing the other barriers – so that choice is truly free.

What do you think of the goal of “gender parity”?

root cause

The conversation about gender diversity (aka gender balance, gender equity and gender equality) needs to go deeper. As Joseph Keefe, CEO of Pax World Investments, declared the business case for gender diversity is so settled that we can stop talking about it. We know it’s good for business and good for the world. Yes, there is progress in seeing more women at leadership levels in business; but the pace remains glacial. We need to understand the reasons at the deepest level – so we can pick up the pace and capture those known benefits.

I want to bring focus to the root cause of the glacial pace. I was pleased to be invited to post a blog on the LSE Business Review, the blog site for the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). I took the opportunity to try to express my thoughts on the root cause.

I focus a lot on the forms of unconscious bias (or mind-sets) that show up in workplace behavior – the “double bind,” gendered definitions of leadership and the “comfort principle” to name a few. There is one mind-set that lies beneath all of these – the root cause. It is the cultural preference for masculine over feminine ways of thinking and working. I argue that, if we restore a balance in our value for both masculine and feminine ways, we will start in motion a virtuous cycle that unleashes the power of gender diversity.

To value both, we must understand both. That is my work! Please click the link, read the piece and let me know what you think!


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