Episode 79: Don't Treat Women Like Men

Show transcript:

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

This time why treating women like men doesn’t help women at work. And why women’s groups within companies may be a waste of time…

“The only reason to change it is it doesn’t usually, in any way, improve the overall gender balance at the company.”

Coming up a conversation with a longtime advocate of what she always calls balance – not women’s leadership.

But first, this episode of the show is brought to you by Write, Speak, Code. If you’re in tech you know balance is still pretty elusive in that industry. Write Speak Code empowers women in technology. The Write Speak Code conference is taking place in June in Chicago and it’s where women in tech can learn to become speakers, thought leaders, and open source contributors. You can sign up for news about the conference at writespeakcode.com.

And if your company would like to sponsor the event the organizers would be glad to hear from you – all the information is at writespeakcode.com. 

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is Canadian by birth but she’s most of her life in Europe. She’s CEO of 20-First – it’s a consultancy that works with companies that want to get equal numbers of men and women at their firms, particularly at the top. You may remember her from a show I did in 2014 called Stop Fixing Women, Start Fixing Companies.

I keep up with her through the pieces she writes for for the Harvard Business Review. And I wanted to kick off this conversation by talking about a piece of hers I read last year. It was called ‘To Hold Women Back, Keep Treating Them Like Men’. I enjoyed it but I thought the title and the idea that men and women ought to be treated differently was bound to rile some people.

Avivah recently moved from Paris to London and we spoke on Skype. 

She says whenever she speaks at a company or event she’ll often start by asking everyone in the room if they believe there are differences between the sexes. She says more than 90 percent raise their hands.

“And then if I ask the men in the room, and I usually have mostly men in my corporate work, in these sessions, if they understand women, they laugh and shake their heads in despair and say no. I point out, in 2016 don’t they think it’s interesting that that they’re running multinationals with 50% of the workforce being women and they say they don’t understand them in any substantive way, or the differences there might be between men and women? So I understand the fear a lot of women and some men have in denying gender differences – we’ve been in that space of denial for the last couple of generations for good reason, but now we are strong enough to say we are both equal and different.”

Now if you’re already bristling, she says the differences she talks about aren’t differences we’re supposedly born with.

“It’s simply that in the way the two sexes have been socialized, are balanced in schools and then in business you end up having very different experiences and expectations. So the differences we usually focus on are pretty simple: it’s the issues of career cycles, communication styles and attitudes towards power and ambition.”

I was about to jump to the next question but Avivah wanted to get into this innate thing a bit more.

“So the nature/nurture debate is worth parking ourselves in briefly. I am not saying men and women are innately different…even though I think they probably are in a variety of ways… but nor do I think Chinese and Americans are innately different. The issue is if you actually want to sell to the Chinese or recruit some Chinese into the leadership team it becomes incredibly important that you understand language and the culture of the Chinese… that’s self evident. Nobody’s going to argue that much. But I would say exactly the same is true of men and women. If you have a male dominated and male-normed company, which most of us do, and have done for a long time, if we want to sell to or recruit women into our organizations and leadership teams we need to recognize that they might be slightly different and understand what those differences are and how to manage across them. So I don’t think it’s necessary that the differences be innate for them to impact what we’re currently facing in organizations.”

And you know the numbers. Most of you are listening to this in countries where fewer than 20 percent of executives are female – and chief executives? Far less than that.

So one of the differences Avivah was talking about is communication styles. By that she means the tendency for men to be more direct, to interrupt more, to be more likely to say ‘I’ achieved something where women are likelier to say ‘we’…it’s all been well documented.

I told her but I get in trouble with listeners sometimes and they’ll say, oh but what you said was such a generalization, I’m a woman who’s naturally direct. I don’t fit the female stereotype.

Avivah says well yes, of course that’s always going to be true, no one is going to fit a stereotype all the time, but companies? They generally rely on a one type of leadership style…

“And if they have a certain number of typically or stereotypically masculine characteristics on their leadership styles, they’ll find a few women who fit but they won’t be tapping into 100% of the female talent pipeline. So the trouble you’re getting into and everybody gets into is that nothing that we’re saying about gender is true for any one individual, it’s just that the statistics show that on the whole communication styles in companies are normed rather masculine, and on the whole most women don’t feel entirely aligned with that style. That’s not exactly revolutionary, right?”

She says just look at tech companies and how hard they find it to attract and keep women. She was talking to a top manager at a well known company last year and he said, ‘We’re having a lot of trouble finding women who fit the culture.’

“I mean classic, right?”

She says that attitude is backwards. But most companies still think that way – they think of the women as being the problem, not their own culture.  

Contrast that with a Canadian tech startup she wrote about. The young men running it wrote to the women they were trying to recruit saying look, we realize we’re a bunch of over-educated white guys…and we don’t want the whole company to look like us, think like us. They invited the women to suggest ways to make the culture more inclusive and they did some research themselves. They now have an almost even split of men and women on staff.

But back to that ‘innate’ discussion for a minute, because it kept rearing its head during our conversation.

AM-T: “What you were describing, the innate versus nurture argument, it’s coming up more and more now, partly because certainly - I don’t know how much in Europe but certainly here in the US, the whole discussion of transgender people has just exploded and that brings up a lot of questions about who are we really deep down, and some of these more recent studies of differences in the brain, and, lack of differences between male and female brains it’s interesting I think that it’s becoming a bigger topic of discussion.”

“Yeah, listen, I’ve been accused now once or twice of being ‘overly binary’…that is the new black, and I think that’s going to be a very dangerous orientation for the whole gender space in what we’re trying to do…which is simply balance out the masculine/feminine spectrum in organizations, politics and society. The fact that of course every man and woman on the planet has a spectrum of masculine and feminine within them – I think the challenge, and maybe the gender fluidity movement will make us more tolerant of what we call any kind of behavioral set…whatever you call it, male or female, masculine, feminine – this, that, or the other, the issue is really that the dominant norm happens to be a pretty narrow slice of existing masculinity, and until we broaden that out it’s gonna keep a lot of people out.”

Including some men. It’s something I think about a lot – the fact that boys and young men still largely have to live up to this quite macho stereotype of what a man is. It’s narrow and limiting.  

“Hugely, especially in Anglo Saxon countries and especially in the US – it’s one of the more extremely masculine countries, it’s less true in Sweden or in France where men will be more acceptably entering into a more feminine side of their internal spectrum. So what we call men and women also is affected by all the cultural norms we inherit, but yeah, they’re still very powerful, they’re very active and unfortunately we’re still orienting our children down these paths, and we’ll see if this whole gender fluidity movement lets off on kids. But I’m not very convinced from anything I’ve seen so far that we’re going to let gender stereotypes go. It’s been a few millennia in the making, so I know we’re quick to adapt, but I’m not expecting anything to happen quite as quickly as we think.”

I was really interested in what she said about Anglo Saxon countries being rigid on what a man should be. Avivah works all over the world so I wanted to know what she sees elsewhere. Being based in the US I read mostly about US, British and Australian attitudes…

“I think what’s interesting is if you look at the cross-cultural research on these things all the Anglo-Saxon countries are slightly more assertive, competitive, masculine, this is where capitalism has its root, right? Not all countries are like that. So If you look at the Nordic countries, or the Eastern European countries, some of the Asian countries, even some of the Latin American or some of the African countries, you’re going to get a different peek, right?  

So what is deforming us a bit in our own heads is a lot of the research comes out of Anglo Saxon countries, which tend to be quite masculine, and where gender balance isn’t necessarily particularly high. So if you go to Sweden or China, Russia or Brazil it’s going to be a slightly different picture.”

Last time we spoke she said in some of these countries where she’s worked companies worry they’re going to have too many women at the top. It’s the women who seem to be more ambitious – it’s men they’re now concerned about attracting. And she wants to keep other clients thinking about this issue of balance as well, including those in the US.

“Because if we flip over as we are in some areas to become more female than male, have we won? We’ve just been working with a company that has been focused on recruiting more women, so they now are recruiting 75% women at the bottom, and they are still very concerned because they still only have 30% at the top and all their efforts are focused on promoting women. And it never crossed their mind they might have an issue of not enough gender balance in their earlier career phases until we brought it up and said well, is this really what you want, because you’re going to create a greater imbalance ten years down the road. And they literally had never tabled that question. So it just shows how quickly we can flip.”

Finally, I wanted to talk to her about something she keeps coming back to in her writing.

AM-T: “You’ve pointed out that gender at work should not be looked at as a women’s issue. Yet so many companies have women’s empowerment groups, women this, women that, and you point out that often women want those groups… and they feel resentment if a man shows up say at a conference or an event that is dubbed ‘women’s’.”

“Yes, so that’s a very complicated one, right, because over the last – this has been going on for 20 years, right, progressive companies who believed in gender balancing really did believe that this would help – is to put women together and empower them and give them a kick. I think that it was appropriate in its time, it’s just that now we’re looking at very different data and numbers and impacts. And I think it’s a misdiagnosis of the problem. If you’re doing all this stuff to what we call ‘fix the women’, your analysis is there’s something wrong with the women and you’re going try and help them adapt to the way the company is run, right? It’s like the guy earlier saying the women don’t fit – once you find the ones that fit, you’ll be alright. The initial diagnosis is the wrong one. If you asked instead what’s the matter with our company, if we can’t attract, retain and develop what is today 60% of the educated talent pool in the world, you come up with a slightly different answer. It’s, well, maybe it requires our organization adjusting to the new reality of the 21st century, which will be much more gender-balanced, and how do we do that, how do we all adjust? Well it means the majority inside your own company needs to adjust and be aware of what’s happening, and it doesn’t help to isolate the group of women you currently have into a separate ghetto. You actually have to merge everyone together and get them to understand the stakes and what it takes to work across genders.”

AM-T: “And you say, you point out that they should be called balance groups instead, but do you know of any companies that have such a thing as a balance group that both genders are part of?”

“Yes, I was working with HSBC, which is a big bank, very successful, and 5 years ago they were launching their women’s network. They asked me to go and speak and I suggested they probably wanted to start a balance network instead, and they did. And they now have 30,000 people in their network and it’s very successful and they’re a model for a lot of other banks in the City. So yes, I do think it’s time for women’s networks to re-brand, to become much more inclusive, and to explore the issues of gender balance together with men so that we can actually have some impact in these companies. Because I think what we can say is after many years of women’s networks, a lot of companies haven’t made the progress they wanted.”

I got in touch with HSBC’s PR department in London. I wanted to check whether their Balance Network had actually worked – not just whether it was really popular, whether it had grown, but whether it had met the goal it set when it started - to have women fill 25% of leadership positions by 2014. I heard back just as I was putting this show together. The bank said it could not share any data about its diversity numbers or balance network at this time.

Back to women’s networks for a minute.

AM-T: “I think part of it is women quite like being in groups of their own sex, sometimes if they are in a very male dominated industry, there’s something relaxing and comforting about being with their own kind. Do you agree?”

“Absolutely. And I like it. I’m the founder of the European Professional Women’s Network. I am a huge believer in the power of women’s networks, my only argument is that they have a role to play outside of companies, or across sectors, but they are not very helpful inside any one company for a variety of reasons. And I completely acknowledge the fact, which is one of the tragi-comic parts of this debate, is that both men and women love women’s networks.

The women love them because of course we love to get together, we get along pretty well, and we share a lot of issues, particularly in male dominated organizations…and it’s helpful to have a place where you feel psychologically safe where you can discuss them. And the problem is leaders, mostly male, like women’s networks too, because they think they’ve taken care of the gender issue. And the women are happy and they’ve been given a conference or a network or a safe space. So everybody’s happy, right? Why change it? The only reason to change it is that it doesn’t usually in any way improve the overall gender balance at the company – so if you want to just keep women happy, and keep them down, start a women’s network.”

She says if you want to actually change the status quo make sure the leaders of the company are on board and pushing the effort.

That’s what you need – not just men signing up as champions and sponsors…

“It’s the way the whole thing is set up right now, it’s just doomed to fail, right…and everybody is copycatting everybody else so we keep repeating the same mistakes, rather than checking if it actually worked in the company that we’re copying off of. And I think there’s enough pressure now that companies feel they have to do something, and because they tend to be fairly task-oriented they love anything that’s action, so ‘let’s initiate a lot of activities, initiatives, things we can tick the box and say we did. And we’ll get a good performance evaluation at the end of the year.’

It’s all the problems with this whole topic is who’s doing it, who’s accountable, where it sits as an issue, and whether you really want to tap into the huge, powerful business opportunities of balancing a whole global organization. It has to sit in a completely different way and be run as a strategic priority by your executive team. Not very many companies have yet elected to do that, but don’t worry, it’s coming. It can’t not come.”

She says the demographics mean change will happen. The fact that 60 percent of educated workers are female…companies can ignore it for a while, but she says you can’t build a high performing organization if you’re recruiting and developing people from 40% of the talent pool.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. You can comment on the show on the website or on the Facebook page. And please rate and review the show on iTunes if you haven’t done do – that helps us get discovered by other people.

If you didn’t hear my last conversation with Avivah, it’s episode 41, Stop Fixing Women, Start Fixing Companies. You can make sure you never miss an episode by subscribing on iTunes, Stitcher, Acast, or wherever else you get your podcasts.

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