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broken ladderSitting at a luncheon of experienced attorneys not long ago, I got into a conversation with the man next to me about what I (formerly an attorney) do for work. I responded that I write, speak and do workshops to help organizations achieve gender diversity in leadership. We agreed that, while things are much better than they used to be for women in the legal profession, the pace of achieving gender diversity has been slower than it should be. (The slow pace is confirmed by NAWL’s most recent survey.) Then he asked me why I think that is. I told him that the root cause is unintentional, non-malicious, unconscious “mindsets” (a term used by McKinsey & Co.) He asked me for an example. I gave him one: the “comfort principle.”

I explained this term by saying that most people tend to be more comfortable working with people who look and think like they do. He became thoughtful, and said, “I had never thought about how important ‘comfort’ is.” We talked about how, when giving out an assignment (a legal case or transaction), it is natural to think first of those we know well and with whom we are comfortable. I pointed out that, if a majority of a firm’s senior partners are white males, the “comfort principle” can be an advantage for white males – and a disadvantage for women and people of color.

In our workshops, we build awareness of the strengths of both masculine and feminine leadership styles. We show how using and valuing both can increase personal effectiveness and team results. Then we show how differences in masculine and feminine styles can lead to misunderstanding, judgment and, most important, obstacles for women. We bring to conscious awareness at least three problematic mindsets. One of them is the “comfort principle.” Awareness of the “comfort principle” and other unconscious “mindsets” enables people to do something about them.

My lunch conversation seemed to have the effect we aim for in our workshops. My lunch companion left knowing something new. He understood how the “comfort principle” could contribute to the slow pace of women achieving their potential. I hope he reflects further on how to remove the obstacles caused by the “comfort principle.” As more and more people become conscious of these mindsets, we will have the key to achieving gender diversity at the top.

Do you have suggestions for how to help people become aware of (previously) unconscious mindsets that create obstacles to gender diversity?