Gender diversity - it's time to lose the labels

Written by
Tom Crawford

09 Feb 2016

09 Feb 2016 • by Tom Crawford

I really wish I didn’t have to write this particular column. In fact I’ve found it so difficult to write. The question of gender is one I wrestle with regularly when working with clients on their diversity agendas. My mental wrestling has led me to extract some potential answers, but no quick fix. 

As a Gen Xer raised in the Anglo-American school of management techniques and now living and working at the heart of Europe, I feel there is definitely a national culture aspect which shapes how women are viewed inside organisations. For example, it wasn’t until 1991 that women got full voting rights in every single Swiss Canton. But national, cultural identity is just one component.

Outdated corporate ecosystems?

I’m also pretty certain that many organisations operate in their own ecosystem which means that their culture is propagated based on outdated norms shaped by leaders who have grown up in those organisations or the sector. One of the solutions has to be: “let’s stop a moment and bring some ‘outside in’ thinking to play. What's happening in the community and society around us? What does that mean for how we operate internally? And not just towards women…”

I see ecosystems particularly strongly in businesses that work hard to bring in “different” people, but don’t appreciate how impenetrable and alienating their culture is (however ‘nice’ it may be) and they therefore lose the vital mavericks shortly thereafter. There are many refugees from benign corporate cults, and not just women.

Gender issues - no longer gender specific

More outside-in thinking and tracking of society can have benefits to things like customer connectivity and understanding generational issues as well as being a foundation for any innovation strategy. In fact, a quick look at the outside world would also tell us that some perceived gender issues are no longer gender specific - they are human needs. For example, there's a whole cadre of men who don’t want to work full time, who want to work flexibly and guess what folks, not all of them are dads. Too many flexible working strategies are crudely seen as “something we must do to retain women (because women are parents)”. This can be divisive in the extreme. 

One solution is therefore to be gender neutral and instead to think about individuals and how they are engaged. This approach accepts there is not a one size fits all formula on how to attract develop and retain women; in the same way there is no such formula for Virgos, left handed people or gay people. We are all different: don’t superglue a label to me because you think it makes you inclusive and it gives you comfort. 

How can men be part of the solution?

One of the most controversial issues relating to gender has to be that we’ve inadvertently perpetuated women as the problem. ‘They’ need a network to talk about ‘their’ stuff. ‘they’ need a different recruitment process. ‘They’ need a conference for ‘them’.

Outside of those safe and often women only environments, everyday organisational life continues as it did before and so little substantive or transformational change occurs: I tend to believe that in any organisation with gender imbalance men are very likely the problem. They tend to recruit, promote, manage, lead, develop etc in their own image.

In a gender imbalanced organisation, men will network with men. The women may even adopt male type behaviours to progress. But this will also alienate a section of the male population.

So, help men be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Coach them on building more gender balanced teams and projects. Make sure they are champions who won’t speak on an external platform unless the rest of the speaker line-up is balanced. Put them through subconscious bias training, ask them what they would want for their daughter in the work place, hold a mirror up in a way which helps them rather than criminalises them.

This ‘men as the solution’ approach also includes enabling them to have conversations that they find scary. I’ve seen many senior men make decisions on how to manage a returning mother without actually speaking to her. These often turn out to be genuinely well intended actions but with dire consequences. Incidentally those same teams and organisations often struggle with any form of reintegration into the workplace, be that after maternity, parental leave, long term sickness or even secondment. Again so called “women’s issues” are human issues. So please let’s have dialogue with each employee and understand what each employee in our team needs and see beyond lazy labelling.