What does International Women’s Day Have to Do with Advancing Women at Work?

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

It is really important for the world to celebrate IWD and to stop for a moment and think about issues that affect women in countries near and far. This year there is activity around sexual violence, trafficking and abuse, and poverty – all good topics to address and in some cases, a little action can improve people’s lives tremendously. You will often hear me say that inaction or silence is essentially collusion with the status quo, which keeps in place whatever ugliness is happening in the world.

Nevertheless, awareness can go a long way, but without challenging structural and cultural elements of any issue, we are just minimizing collateral damage. If there is no systemic change, then power and authority paradigms remain the same and we will continue to scratch our heads and wonder why our expectations aren’t met around people doing things differently. The same holds true for advancing women in the workplace.

We need to be having the right conversation to actually see some traction. Catalyst in 2012 reported barely changed figures for women on boards, female CEOs, and women in senior executive jobs.

Often, I feel that we spend too much time arguing over gender-based matters, such as work life balance. Instead, I would like to advocate that we direct the discussion to look at systemic and cultural issues as a way out of the “pink ghetto.” Arguing about whether we should “lean in” more or not as a group is just not going to do it!

Whose Decisions Gets Questioned? Who Speaks up?

This article isn’t about whether Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” strategy is right or wrong, or an analysis on why Marissa Mayer decided to scrap working from home.

I can only speak for myself when I say I am bored of reading about both of these women and what they have for breakfast. This is just a distraction from the real issues that are keeping talented women out of senior management positions.

In the case of Sheryl, it is what she believes to have worked for her and others and she is taking it all the way to the bank with real and authentic conviction. In the case of Marissa, lest we forget, it is her strategy to execute as part of a wider cultural overhaul of Yahoo. Would we be so interested in Yahoo’s working from home policy if the CEO were a man? Would it even have been reported on at all? Would we feel so authorized to criticize her decision-making? Why are we so keen to work on her company’s employee engagement strategy from our armchairs?

Female change leaders have a different place in society then male change leaders. As we have seen, female leaders are often questioned on their every move by everyone, but especially by women. One theory for the silence from many men on the topic of gender diversity could be because they are applying a fair amount of cognitive dissonance and tuning the whole thing out. “Hey I am not a woman, so this isn’t something for me to worry about.” I have seen similar veins in my wider diversity work – white people avoiding multicultural issues, ditto straight people on gay issues.

Creating Pathways to Leadership

Despite the endless talk about Sheryl’s new book, we shouldn’t be under any illusion that she has the ability to create the necessary systemic change. Just look at the lack of diversity found in her own company’s board and executive team.

The reality women face in the workplace is that you may be “leaning in” pretty hard, but that doesn’t mean you will be promoted. Even with contentious topics like baby and housework realities aside, many people still expect men to be leaders and are still surprised when women are. It’s cognitive processes that we have to learn to recognize in order to override our own brains. Both genders are guilty of it. Think of it as a form of intercultural competence.

Therefore, the power of sponsorship, gender champions, and straight allies to create opportunities and pathways to useful assignments and projects should not be underestimated. That stuff matters since expertise is increased, networks widened, and relationships built. Find people to help you and help them too. That is my advice.

Now, can we talk about something else?

Until we focus on empowering leaders to create pathways for diverse talent to succeed and until well-designed systems ensure positive employee culture becomes part of the company DNA, we will only have TED Talks.

Nicki Gilmour is the publisher of and is dedicated to empowering women whilst fixing the system. Check out our sister company Evolved Employer to see our leadership work.