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Senior Management Holds the Key to Gender Parity: It’s the Culture, Stupid!

Nicki GilmourBy Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of The Glass Hammer

As founder and publisher of theglasshammer.com, I am proud to pen our 2000th article today and to share with you some of our latest thinking and around gender parity. We are proud to have spent the last four years creating a “must read” online publication designed to help professional women actively manage their careers. We have had the pleasure of covering the most progressive research on gender from well-known think tanks and attending events with fantastically inspirational speakers, as well as hosting our own panel discussions and networking events.

It seems appropriate to celebrate our 2000th article with a look at what components could play a major role in helping a critical mass of women to break the glass ceiling over the next few years. After all, if the last twenty years is closely examined, we would find only an incremental change in the number of women in leadership roles in major companies. (For example, as The Economist recently reported, while the proportion of working women has risen from risen from 48% to 64% since the ’70s, women still only make up three percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.) Similarly, the advice given to women since the 1980s hasn’t changed much either and has been predominantly to act more like men.

Is this strategy working for women? Whilst it definitely makes sense to provide women with a guidebook to how the game is played currently, I cannot help but feel this method ignores the elephant in the room. What might that be? Culture.

It means addressing the culture question and exploring tough topics around why macho works styles are still revered. Asking how culture is formed and maintained and who gets to most heavily influence it should be on every leader’s list of things to look at in 2012. This examination and honest diagnostic approach would enable senior management to look at the systemic issues that are preventing women and other minorities from advancing from middle management to senior management roles and onwards to the boardroom.

Behind the scenes here at theglasshammer.com, beyond creating empowering content for our readers and community members, we have begun to conduct research and write white papers on under-represented groups in the workplace. Our work explores topics  such as women in technology teams, LGBT women at work, and multicultural women in financial services. This work is conducted via our sister site Evolved Employer and is focused on helping companies understand how to architect their company culture to be inclusive and supportive of talented people who don’t necessary fit or want to be categorized into one box or other based on their outward appearance. (Hello Generation Y.)

Many companies and the people in them are still not clear on the business case for spending time developing talent as a business driver. “Smart people come in different packages” is the best way I can explain the need for dispelling myths around what a leader looks like. Diversity work is deeply personal and quite hard because it challenges every deeply held belief we’ve ever had. No one wants to admit to ourselves that we have biases. Often, unconscious bias, even those held by women, protects those who have historically held power, in order to uphold the status quo and maintain workplace traditions. Micro-inequities are often upheld by the very people who are most hindered by them.

What Does Meritocracy Really Mean?

The unpopularity of the proposal around workplace quotas for women by women themselves is possibly the one of the most interesting positions that I have seen this year. Those who believe that their workplace is a meritocracy question the need for quotas since they believe that merit alone will get women to the corner office and dismiss quotas as damaging tokenism.

Those who question meritocracy and look hard at the numbers and the slow growth of promotional rates for women at senior executive level are often still reluctant to endorse quotas for fear of creating perceived tokenism. I would offer up instead that currently, we are exactly perpetrating our own myths and setting up women to fail so that it in the end it looks like tokenism took place.

Many less-than-capable men have been promoted into roles that they cannot handle. The executive failure rates of men are just that – statistics of executive failure rates. We are telling our boys to go out and try, and telling our girls to pipe down and play it safe.

That is why sponsorship is such an interesting concept. It gives women much-needed access to exciting projects, and the chance to explore their abilities with someone on their side whether it turns out to be guts or glory. Men have always had this, and executive failure isn’t the end of the world as the company (mostly) recovers, the person (mostly) gets fired and life goes on. It is an expected fact that a young man will be promoted at some point in his career on promise and potential. Why then, must women only be promoted on past performance?

Then we go full circle, back to the argument that there quotas don’t work, because there isn’t a suitable women to promote as none have the experience, etc. This cycle gets old for me, very quickly, and is one of the reasons why we seemingly have been having the same conversation for the past 30 years (I joined it 5 years ago).

Leadership is Key to Culture

Executive management and leaders of teams and departments have the ability to create or destroy an inclusive environment and the ability to promote women equally. Leaders have the floor, and their tacit or vocal endorsement of norms, values, or behaviors around equality and fairness, as well as allowing inconsistent management practices, make micro-inequities a real issue, despite being invisible to the naked eye. As long as one set of beliefs is held as superior to all others, then no amount of programming and policy-making to create change will work as effectively as visible and genuine action from the leader that communicates change is happening for real. Hire women, start a sponsor program, measure your diversity work, and make it a business objective. In other words, take it seriously!

The numbers show that women are still very much relegated to middle management at best. Ilene Lang, President of Catalyst, drew grasps from the room last March at the annual Catalyst awards dinner when she announced that 72,000,000 women work in the USA and only 735 hold executive positions in the Fortune 500. Catalyst’s research also shows that women and men, all things being equal with the same experience and freshly minted MBA, are likely to earn different starting salaries.

While institutional change comes to the top, there are strategies that women can employ to break this cycle. Request an invite to our annual Navigating, Negotiating, and Building your Strategic Network event to learn more about how to get to the corner office. Some companies really are better than others.