Posted December 1st, 2015 in Diversity & Inclusion.
“Denying the existence of differences between men and women (or boys and girls) was a useful phase we had to go through. It got us to here. Now that the reality of gender has changed, so should our approach. Managers – both male and female – should embrace the differences and get everyone to succeed.” ~ Avivah Wittenberg-Cox
That quote summarizes a fantastic article called To Hold Women Back, Keep Treating Them Like Men I read recently that originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review. It emphasized the importance of companies moving beyond the notion that men and women are exactly alike, and should be treated as if no real differences exist in who they are, how they think, or how they might lead. Seriously, you should read it.
Don’t get twisted before hearing Avivah Wittenberg-Cox out. What she specifically says is that, while most individual managers acknowledge gender differences exist in terms of strengths, perspective, and leadership styles, many companies nevertheless continue to employ diversity policies that ignore this fact.
According to Wittenberg-Cox,
The business world’s denial of differences hurts women, and excludes them in a myriad of ways – consciously and unconsciously – from leadership. Because differences are not recognized, women are too often simply judged as “not fitting” the dominant group’s systems, styles and patterns. There were good reasons for pushing “sameness” in the past, and the laws of many countries underlie today’s companies’ insistence on similar treatment – being treated the same is, after all, better than being treated worse. But today, those are not our only options. It’s time for companies to adapt to women – or watch them walk out the door to competitors who will. In all the companies I work with, lack of recognition of basic differences like career cycles, communication styles, or attitudes to power is enough to eliminate one gender and prefer the other. (Emphasis is mine.)
Lest we think this phenomenon is a one-way street affecting only women, she acknowledges this troubling scenario can hold true when roles are reversed and women dominate a structure without giving regard to gender differences. Offering the U.S. education system as an example where 89% of teachers (i.e. the leadership structure) are women, she cites Raising Cain author, Michael Thompson’s, commentary on the subject. He notes that, in schools, boys are often expected to bend away from their natural tendencies and behave more like girls – calm, quiet, with rapt attention. Thompson makes the case that this appears connected to the high rates at which boys are medicated for ADHD and worse, dropping out of school altogether.
I so admire that Wittenberg-Cox is willing to say what so many others don’t dare to: that difference does not equate to inferiority. Women and men are different. Women’s contribution to business leadership and boards is well-documented in terms of financial results. At least part of their value-add is because they have had different life experiences and (if they are not the lone woman pressured to be a female version of their male counterparts) therefore bring a distinct perspective that drives better results.
I’m thoroughly convinced that acknowledging and empowering male and female leaders to embrace their differing strengths rather than merely morphing toward the masculine is key to taking a company to next-level success. The most vibrant corporate cultures willingly cultivate differences in perspective and leadership qualities, and the rich reward for that willingness is a strong, dynamic synergism. I also think that once enough women reach leadership roles to counter the ‘lone woman’ pressure to conform, we will see much more of this…which I hope drives businesses to value their women as more than mini-men. In that case, everyone wins.