Episode 41: Stop fixing women, start fixing companies

June 2, 2014

"I don’t disagree with a word Sandberg says, I just think she could have used all her power and her understanding to much more clearly tell companies to lean in." - Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

"Leaning in" has become the new mantra for women in the workplace. But what about the companies they work for? In this episode, I talk to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, whose life's work is helping companies achieve a better balance of men and women in senior roles. Is it women who need to change, or is it high time that companies shift their default-male settings and start following the lead of their female employees?

20 minutes.


Further reading:

Catalyst report: the business case for gender diversity (from 2004)

Catalyst report on the business case for women's representation on boards (2004 - 2008)

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox's latest Harvard Business Review post is about a French law firm that has a 50/50 balance of men and women at all levels of the company.

Her latest book is Seven Steps to Leading a Gender-Balanced Business

Further listening: episode 15 of The Broad Experience, Do We Have to Fit In? and episode 17, Female in Silicon Valley.



Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show…why should women have to change themselves to fit in with company culture, as one famous book advocates…

“I just think she could have used all of her power and all of her understanding to much more clearly tell companies to lean in…I mean she could have written the same book and called it ‘Companies Lean In’.”

Coming up – stop fixing women, start fixing companies.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is CEO of 20 First, a consultancy based in Europe. She and her colleagues work with companies who are serious about getting a good balance of men and women in top roles.

I found out about her work because she writes regularly for the Harvard Business Review blog and her message doesn’t vary: she says it’s time for the world’s corporations to update their attitudes to match reality. And reality is that around 60% of university graduates around the world are women. Women make 80 percent of purchasing decisions. And research shows companies with a good balance of men and women in management and on boards do better than other companies.

Still, most of the emphasis so far has been on getting women to change to climb the ranks. Avivah is out to change that.

She was brought up in Canada but she’s lived in Paris for years. When we spoke I was in London, she was in Paris. She’d just got back from a work trip to Mumbai and was about to fly to LA. We spoke on Skype.

I began by asking her what she and her colleagues find when they start working with one of their client companies.

“They haven’t really ever in our experience had a discussion on gender among themselves for more than an hour in their lives. What they do occasionally have is presentations that come in from the women’s committee or the diversity committee that kind of tell them what the business case is and they nod and go away - unconvinced. They will not be convinced by some woman leading a woman’s network. They may be convinced by their head of finance or research. Peer to peer discussion is absolutely key as a change agent.”

When they are taking this seriously and have decided as a company to try and work on this what kinds of changes are they making in house to make it an easier place for women to ascend…what kinds of things are they doing?”

“Well what so many people don’t understand I think is these guys aren’t fully aware of the topic – they think they are being fully gender neutral…that’s what they have been taught, that’s what we have asked them to be for a century or so, right? To ignore gender and treat everybody the same. That’s their mantra, that’s what they’re convinced, they are not in any way aware that the current environment they are in is in any way normed on masculine behaviors, styles, communication issues, they’re not aware of that, they just think that’s normal.”

But the workplace was created by men, for men. And women often have trouble thriving in that environment – an environment designed for guys who’ve been conditioned all their lives to ask for what they want in no uncertain terms, to speak up when they need to. Compare that to women who’ve usually been raised with quite different expectations for how they should behave…and you see how offices can be tricky places for women to fit in.

“Is this because of feminism that in the west we’ve tended to operate under this, we’re all the same, we’re all the same inside?"

“Yes, I think this is what we ladies have asked for for a century, and I think we’re getting it.  I think guys are trying - in well run companies guys are doing what we think we’ve been asking for which is to be treated exactly the same. And I think women are only just beginning to wake up to the fact that maybe that wasn’t exactly the right request. And we’re now trying to adjust a bit to can we be equal but different, as opposed to equal and the same, because if we’re treated exactly the same it’s a really effective way of getting us out of the talent pipelines and promotions.”

Because - just to use one common example - a man is likelier to put himself forward for a new job or promotion even if he doesn’t meet that many of the qualifications. A woman is likely to say oh, I’m not ready, I’m not fully qualified – even though actually each person might have just as good a chance as the other. But the man is likelier get the job just because he had the self-belief to put himself forward. The woman will remain at her same level because she didn’t dare to apply. As far as the company’s concerned, both had an equal shot.

Avivah spends a lot of her time helping clients become aware of the differences between men and women and the unconscious biases we all hold about both genders. She says once that starts to sink in, companies begin to get it. They can start to change their cultures to be the kinds of places where both sexes can do well. And she tells companies they may have to pull women up to get more equality in the ranks – not wait for them to put themselves forward.

You won’t hear Avivah using phrases like ‘women’s leadership’ that much. Her focus is on having both sexes at management levels and she’s careful to always phrase the discussion around balance, not around a lack of women. For one thing, that balance message tends to resonate a lot more with men – it’s less guilt inducing, more inclusive, more galvanizing.

Still she says that balance can only be achieved if men are allowed to be LESS ambitious… we’ll come back to that a bit later. But she says America, where so much of the conversation about women and work takes place – it’s the worst culprit when it comes to framing the problem.

“American companies just tend to be driving this very much framed as a women’s issue run by women for women all about women. We try not to drive it that way or work with companies that want to take a different approach. We have seen this approach work in companies from Pakistan to the US. It just requires management to decide they’re going to drive it this way.”

I know you’ve been in India recently. I’d love to hear a story from your work there.

“What is interesting is how ready leaders are in women-unfriendly countries where context is very difficult, they know if they’re going to do this they will have to put a lot of resources behind it, which isn’t your western vision of gender balance. They know they’ll have to do to a lot of work to make their companies even attractive to women. Because they’re so wildly male dominated they have some employer branding to do. They have to create policies to ensure that women are secure – just getting to and from work in India, there are major security issues for women…some companies will built apartment buildings near offices or factories where they house staffs. There are policies in India to start sending parents around with their executives…not just babysitters, that was already obvious they had to send the babysitters around, now they’re talking about moving the parents. Because in a lot of Asian counties people simply won’t be mobile if they cant bring their parents along as well because they’re responsible for them. There’s a whole other debate than anything you’ll find in the west.”

Just picture how much is involved for these companies in southeast Asia – if you want more women executives you have to think not only about on-site crèches and babysitters but moving that executives’ parents around the country or the world with her, because the culture demands that children – but especially women – look after their parents. It’s huge – and Avivah says these companies know that if they really want to do this, if they truly want more women in management roles, they’re going to have to make a hefty investment.

They only do it when they’re serious about getting results.

In the west, she says, she finds male leaders tend to start off from the point of view of well, we’ve had a women’s networking group, we’ve acted as champions to our female colleagues…if women aren’t getting as far as men, surely that’s their fault.

You’ve brought me neatly to my next question…what do you think of the whole Lean In movement? Have you read the book?

“Yeah, of course I have, and I have been pretty involved in writing on that too. I think you probably can guess my position, I find it slightly extraordinary in 2014 when women are 60 percent of the talent pool and 80 percent of purchasing decision makers in consumer goods to tell women to be leaning in. I think we have leaned in and we’re seeing the silent revolution of that shift. The fact the corporate world is not fully utilizing this talent now on offer or realizing the business advantages of being gender balanced…I don’t think women can lean in all that much more and I worry about it because it’s often interpreted as women should behave and become more like men. Whereas what I hear from leaders is they don’t want that, they want women to stay complimentary, different, authentic, whatever they are that they bring…and they need to get their own systems to just be more inclusive and more welcoming to styles that may be a little bit different from what they have had for the past century. I think it’s time for companies to lean in, big time.”

At this point I said OK, but what about the way so many women have been raised? A lot of us were brought up at home and by society to be polite people pleasers, not to make a fuss, and not to advocate for ourselves because that was unseemly…

I mean I do think all that affects our behavior and I don’t mind trying to change some of that…but I don’t know, do you think that’s sort of heinous that we should change bits of ourselves?

“No, I’ve been an executive coach for 15 years and I think all of us can do lot of work to learn and grow and change through our lives and careers – we have to learn all of us the rules of the game in organizations. All I can tell you is that in organizations that are gender balanced, or any of these leaders I’ve worked with who are good leaders, really truly meritocratic, women don’t need any of this advice because they’re totally comfortable, totally secure, they speak out, they have their say and there is no issues and no differences between men and women, it’s only in environments that aren’t inclusive, that still have male norms spoken or unspoken, that are at play, that women tend to then shut down or feel less comfortable as any out of power group would, in a system that is somewhat dominating with messages on how things should be and how people should behave…so no, I am just sad that a woman with as much experience and understanding of the corporate world as Sandberg couldn’t have been a much more useful change agent if she’d told companies to lean in – as has Hillary Clinton or Christine Lagarde at the IMF, there are other women arguing the economy could benefit so much from a better utilization of female skills. I think that would have been a message that would have hugely shifted the debate – which desperately needs shifting in US – away from this fix-the-women mentality to a let’s adapt to the current reality of a female dominated talent people and a female dominated market.

I suppose you could say…if important men at companies have read this book…

“Oh, I think it’s a great book, I don’t disagree with a single word Sandberg says, I just think she could have used all her power and her understanding to much more clearly tell companies to lean in. She could have written the same book and called it companies lean in and learn this and she would have had a hundred thousand times the men reading that book. She has some men but the book is really aimed at women. If the book had been more clearly aimed at companies and managers more generally and said, this is a 21st century management skill you guys need to learn and capture, she’d have had the same level of impact but on the right audience, and that would have been extraordinarily helpful at this time in history.”

What about you writing that book?

“I have, I’ve written three, and they all say this, I just happen to be not CEO of Facebook so it has a little less impact!”

Avivah’s latest book is called Seven Steps to Leading a Gender Balanced Business.

And talking of balance, when I brought up the McKinsey and Company finding that only 41% of women even aspired to the executive suite, while 59% did not, she said, well, how about asking that same question of someone else?

“Not all the men want to either, right? We have to make sure we’re comparing the comparable. It’s not enough just to say 40% of women – what percentage of men want this? Not all men want to get to the executive suite for the same reasons. So all of this…My issue with the research is it has to be compared or it’s not worth that much…actually I think McKinsey has done fantastic research and they’ve shown very clearly the impact of leadership and CEO commitment on balancing…but this whole debate about what women say, what women, want, do women really want it, and all that stuff, is slightly useless in a context where companies have not yet really adapted.”

Adapted, that is, to be places where both sexes can be themselves. Where more women aspire to the top job because company culture no longer feels so alien. And where more men can openly say they’re happy staying on the ladder’s middle rungs because they there are things they’re interested in other than work.

In some places, things have changed already…though they’re unbalanced in the other direction…

“What I see in a lot of countries, Russia, China, the Philippines, is we are seeing a lot of countries flip, so we’re getting women dominating in a lot of positions and I hear exactly the same conversation in those countries that I hear in the west, but for the other gender, Oh…we’d love to get more men but we just can’t find any, and they’re just not as competent, and the really good ones are always women and the men just aren’t as ambitious…on and on and on it goes. This is why we’ve always called ourselves gender balancers because we’ll be working very soon for the other side of the population.”

So far, the US workplace remains far from balanced. A lot of men who get paternity leave – and that’s far from everyone – they still don’t even take the leave they’re offered for fear of losing status at the office. I see America as a vast ship whose work culture – and workaholism - will be tough to turn around…

“Well that’s what’s really interesting about working for multinationals. Within a single company you have this experimentation rolling out now all over the world in culture after culture. And you can learn a lot inside companies from how other companies do it – other companies, other cultures, other leaders. And there really is not in my experience a hugely determining factor to any culture I’ve seen. If any leader wants to gender balance, they can do it. They can get any of these polices through and adopted through leadership skills regardless of the culture. If you can do it in Pakistan, believe me, you can do it in workaholic America. That’s a minor issue.”

No, that’s so encouraging. That’s a wonderfully encouraging note on which to end. Thank you so much for doing this.

“My pleasure. I am optimistic. Right now it’s only the very best companies, but they’re going to get a competitive edge and the others will be forced to move in behind them pretty soon.”

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox. I’m going to link you to her latest Harvard Business Review blog post under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

Also if you’re a new listener, first, I’m really glad to have you. Second, all past episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, Audioboo and a few other places as well. And if you’re as interested as I am in how companies around the world are appealing to women, I’d like to recommend episodes 15 and 17 of The Broad Experience – each show has an interview with a woman from a multinational about what that company’s doing to get more women into senior roles in countries from Iceland to Pakistan.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. If you enjoy the show, please consider writing a review on iTunes. You can comment on the show at The Broad Experience dot com and on the show’s Facebook page.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.