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broken ladderI am pleased to see even more attention given recently to the importance – and challenges – of achieving and maintaining gender diversity in business leadership.

Catalyst continues its important work of shedding light on issues about women in business. McKinsey & Company regularly focuses on this business issue through its Women Matter research. Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In brought attention from beyond those (like me) long invested in this issue. John Gerzema’s recent book The Athena Doctrine brings more compelling research to validate the need for leadership that incorporates feminine as well as masculine strengths. Harvard Business Review’s September 2013 issue spotlights women in leadership. I have done my part, publishing a book, several articles, including in Forbes Women, and scores of blogs on the topic.

So much discussion and attention, Yet so little real progress. McKinsey suggests that even taking all the right and progressive structural steps cannot solve the problem unless “invisible mind-sets” are uprooted. The lead article in the HBR series, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers” calls the invisible barriers that keep women from the top “second generation gender bias.” The authors say businesses must educate everyone about this subtle obstacle to gender diversity.

In our work at DifferenceWORKS, we start by creating awareness that all of us, men and women, have both masculine and feminine strengths. We provide tools for increasing the ability to use both for greater effectiveness and for appreciating the strengths of both in others. Based on this awareness, we then demonstrate how differences in masculine and feminine approaches create obstacles for women (who are more likely than men to work and lead in feminine ways). We put the unintentional, non-malicious, unconscious mind-sets into three categories:

  • The “double bind”: Women who operate in feminine ways are not seen as leaders; women who demonstrate a more masculine style may be seen as pushy or arrogant and not be liked.
  • The “comfort principle”: The natural tendency of people to form trusting relationships with those like themselves can perpetuate the current demographics at the top and exclude women from critical business connections.
  • Unconscious images”: Leadership has historically been seen in the image of men. Women, in appearance and approach, may be overlooked if they do not “look the part.”

We believe that the solution to this problem starts with awareness. Invisible mind-sets cannot be uprooted until they are brought to consciousness. Think of the blind spot in your car. Like an oncoming truck, these mind-sets pose serious threats. If we know they exist, we can manage them. We can consciously alter habitual ways of thinking and leading. Making unconscious mind-sets conscious is how women will reach the top and share leadership with men! That is how business will capture the benefits of gender diversity in leadership.

Have you seen unconscious mind-sets create obstacles for people reaching their potential? Share your story!