Why might the message about the value of diversity not be heard? Why might leaders hear it but not buy it? Why do men who do buy it not take effective action? These are not rhetorical questions. I have some ideas but I want your thoughts.
Unconscious gender bias is the root cause of business’ slow progress in capturing the business benefits of gender diversity. Having unconscious bias is simply human as Shankar Vedantam shows in his book “The Hidden Brain.” It is hard to change ways we aren’t even aware we have been wired, taught or acculturated to think. Our approach starts with helping people understand and appreciate both masculine and feminine strengths – in men and women.
A recent conversation brought to mind 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. How can we shift the focus from “fixing women” to bringing awareness to unconscious gender biases?
Unconscious gender bias doesn’t’ appear exclusively in the corporate world. As illustrated by a true story a friend recently told me, it resides in small business, too. Our unconscious (and gendered) images of leadership are everywhere. In a family business, a woman who had worked for years was passed over when the founder retired — by a much less experienced, but male, relative. How can we broaden our “pictures” of leadership?
The numbers and graphs in the report by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2015, support some beliefs, and challenge some myths, about why women remain underrepresented at the executive level of American business. What about gender bias? The report concludes that women are more likely than men to perceive gender bias. Of course they do! One of the recommendations of the study is training to “interrupt gender bias,” including to assure men can see and understand the challenges women encounter.
In many parts of the world, women’s voices are suppressed. In our western culture, in particular in the U.S. corporate world, women’s voices are not “suppressed.” But they are often not fully heard. Why not? Let me suggest four challenges, with the hope that awareness can help us better hear women’s voices right here in the USA. The feminine style of speech sounds less confident. Women assert themselves only when they really know. Women get “talked over.” And women who do speak up face the “double bind.”