Getting Out of the Gender Ghetto

Wittenberg-Cox_How Women_pbk.inddBy Cleo Thompson (London), Founder of The Gender Blog

“It’s time to get serious about sex”, declared Avivah Wittenberg-Cox in 2008, at the NYC launch of her book, Why Women Mean Business. Co-authored with Financial Times contributor Alison Maitland, the book took the economic arguments for gender change to the heart of the corporate world and spelled out in no uncertain terms that gender diversity is an economic necessity and is good for women, men, companies and their clients.

Two years later, we’re in a very different, credit-crunched corporate world and Wittenberg-Cox is back with the sequel: How Women Mean Business, subtitled – “A step by step guide to profiting from gender balanced business”. The book was launched last week at a London event hosted by Nomura, where the author guided her audience of both men and women through a frank and witty multimedia presentation of the issues covered in her new offering.

“The twentieth century is over. The reality of the world has changed. The last century was driven by manufacturing and the twenty-first century is wrapped up in customer services and technology”, explained Wittenberg-Cox.

“And gender balance has a huge role to play in this transformation.”

We’ve been hearing a lot in recent years about gender balance as it pertains to women (primarily, as recently described in this New York Times letter, from the point of view of “women pushing into the world of men”) but, in urging both genders towards a more collaborative future, Wittenberg-Cox reminded us that men are also feeling very emotional about these changes – as evidenced by her showing of this “man’s last stand” Dodge Charger advertisement from the 2010 Super Bowl commercial break.

So, our challenge now is to understand how we progress towards making the current dominant part of the market welcome this shift.

A Story of Opportunity

And why should companies care? Wittenberg-Cox broke it down to three key reasons:

  • Leadership: can your team lead effectively in this new global economy?
  • Talent: in a world where 60% of university graduates are female, can you afford not to hire, promote and retain them?
  • Markets: Given that, due to their buying power and, as we are reminded by no less than The Economist, “economic growth is driven by women” – women are the primary customers (influencing c. 80% of buying decisions) in markets all over the world.

And, if you can accept these three key reasons, Wittenberg-Cox also suggests that big business needs to stop focusing on fixing the women, to instead ask themselves “what’s wrong with our companies?” and to move towards crafting better solutions, rather than trying to make women ape men.

Bilingual Leadership Principles

Wittenberg-Cox has pioneered the concept of gender balance and bilingual leadership and her basic principles include reminding us that women are not a minority, but an equal and able part of both the workforce and society; stopping the practice of asking women to solve gender based issues; and recognising women as equal and different.

As part of this approach to collaborative balance, Wittenberg-Cox insists, and the book has many great case studies which bear this theory out, that implementation of a gender balanced program has to start with an organisation’s top management, reminding us, wryly, that: “If they mean it – they do it.”

Her clear, pragmatic guide for creating more gender balanced approaches to business and getting ourselves “out of the gender ghetto” has four stages:

  • Audit: Measure what you have done until now and where has it got you
  • Awareness: Get managers to buy-in and understand why their business would benefit and what they
    have to do
  • Align: Adapt the policies, processes and culture that make up the corporate DNA
  • Sustain: Track improvements, maintain momentum, celebrate success

The event closed with a panel discussion hosted by Stefan Stern of the Financial Times, in which he moderated a debate between male leaders from Nomura, Shell and Cisco; as this was off-limits to the media, let’s close with a quote from the book, in which Lois P. Frankel, author of See Jane Lead and a co-founder of The Thin Pink Line site, describes Wittenberg-Cox’s work as:

“A call to action for savvy executives serious about shifting the focus of their companies from surviving to thriving.”

Doesn’t that make sense in this climate?