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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?