While most executives would agree that men and women are different, the majority of diversity initiatives are designed to ignore these differences, according to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, founder of gender diversity consulting group 20-first. She says treating men and women the same only perpetuates the gender gap in corporate leadership.
Instead, organizations need to engage leaders, launch initiatives backed by executives and equip managers with the skills needed to operate across genders. We spoke with Wittenberg-Cox to learn more about the value of gender parity in workplace leadership, why typical diversity programs are designed poorly and how companies can more effectively address the corporate gender gap.
What are the main gender balance issues you see in corporate leadership?
The main gender gap issue is accepting that men and women are different. For example, if your company thinks that recruiting and serving customers in China will be different than recruiting and serving American customers, you are going to have to adapt to that difference. The same is true when recruiting women and men. You have to adapt your systems and change culture and management mindsets to that difference.
The gender of the dominant group in power in an organization defines corporate culture. For example, if the dominant gender is male, this can lead to a culture geared more towards masculine styles, language and career cycles. Men and women differ in respect to how they approach communication, ambition, power and career growth.
How can organizations work to overcome these issues?
The issue we are facing is organizations are trying to get women to adapt to the existing cultures and norms [that have been in place since men dominated the workplace]. That doesn't work, won't work and hasn't worked very well. If companies want to hire talent and tap into the market optimally, they have to adapt to a lot of ways of working to be more gender balanced, or "gender bilingual." Companies have to understand what gender balance means both internally—within the company—and externally—with their customer base.
What can companies do to become gender bilingual?
Build skills among all managers on how to connect with both male and female customers, end-users and decision makers. Ensure mangers know how to effectively build and manage gender-balanced teams. HR systems should be gender bilingual and gender neutral. For example, make sure parental leave is applicable to either parent, or replace "work-life balance for women" with "flexibility for all."
You can check to see if your marketing is gender bilingual by testing if the marketing messages for your innovation, product, service or delivery channel are equally resonant with both men and women.
What are some faults of typical diversity programs?
I've seen a lot of companies trying to "fix" women by spending time and money on coaching, training and mentoring women to become more like men [in the workplace]. We think it is more effective to work with leaders and managers to build [communication and management] skills so they become effective at working with both genders.
What future gender balance trends to you expect to see in the workplace?
I just interviewed a young tech guy, and he is so much what I hope will be the next generation of leaders. He thinks gender balance is absolutely essential and has already made gender balance a strategic goal at his company. He is open to advice and has the humility to say that the way he would do things isn't necessarily applicable [for everyone].
That kind of awareness of global realities where you have to learn to work with people dramatically different from yourself isn't a dominant paradigm in leadership today, but will be in the future.