The problem is that women still aren’t proportionally represented in the upper levels of U.S. business. This is more than just a problem for women. It is a problem for business. Businesses that lack gender diversity in leadership incur unnecessary (and significant) costs and miss out on documented (and significant) upsides.
The numbers tell the story. Catalyst reports that in Fortune 500 companies, women still make up only 14.4% of executive officers and 7.6% of top earners in 2011. Stack the Catalyst numbers up and you see a pyramid—the “pyramid problem.” A recent Catalyst research report isn’t very hopeful about a quick fix to the pyramid problem. The study concludes that even women who “do all the right things” lag behind men. McKinsey Quarterly, a business journal determined to define and inform senior management leadership, notes that all the efforts over the last decades have still not solved this problem. Solving it will take changing “invisible mind-sets.”
To solve an issue like the pyramid problem, you must have a reason for change. The business case for retaining women and solving this problem is compelling. Gender diversity in leadership is strongly correlated with bottom line results. Gender diversity enables a business to tap a huge “women’s market.” The talent pipeline, particularly the educated pipeline, consists of at least 50% women. These are just a few of the reasons leaders should want to figure out how to engage, retain and promote capable women!
If you already know how solving this problem will benefit your business, you need to understand what causes the problem. The problem is that women “leave” before reaching (and even after reaching) the upper levels of business. The term “leave” is shorthand for seeking greener pastures, starting their own businesses or just stalling out and stopping the climb. What causes women to “leave”? The causes are primarily family obligations and aspects of the organizational culture. I focus on the latter.
In inclusive cultures, women as well as men feel valued, heard and supported; they feel they can succeed. In cultures that aren’t inclusive, women may feel they lack access to the important networks that lead to good assignments, experience and exposure. They may feel that their way of getting results isn’t equally valued. These feelings can lead to dis-engagement—and cause women to “leave.” There is no conspiracy to make women feel excluded; these obstacles arise from unintentional and even unconscious ways of seeing the world (the “invisible mind-sets” referred to in the McKinsey article).
Solving a problem caused by invisible, unconscious ways of thinking first requires that leaders become conscious of these obstacles. Obstacles to accessing resources and networks are held in place, in part, by a normal human preference; people like to spend time with people like themselves. I call it the “comfort principle.” Spending time with similar people enables development of trusting relationships. Leaders naturally prefer people with whom they have such relationships. The “comfort principle” often influences who gets good assignments, who gets a break or whom leaders find time to mentor. If you become aware of the “comfort principle,” you have the ability to pause and be sure you balance your comfort with the upsides that diversity offers your bottom line. Give an assignment and your time to someone different than you!
To solve the pyramid problems, leaders must appreciate different ways of accomplishing results. To create a culture that engages women as well as men takes a leader who understands differences between masculine and feminine approaches and the strengths and limitations of both. Awareness enables individuals to flex their own style and use the approach that is most effective. Awareness of masculine-feminine differences can improve working relationships among men and women—and with clients. Finally, such awareness can enable a leader to create inclusive cultures—and solve the pyramid problem.
Awareness of the obstacles within the workplace and awareness of the value of both masculine and feminine strengths are the keys to solving the pyramid problem. Awareness enables leaders to practice inclusive behaviors, which will lead them to the rewards of gender diversity!
Does your organization have a pyramid problem? Do the women in your organization feel they have equal access to the networks that lead to success?
I welcome your comments and look forward to a meaningful conversation as we explore the pyramid problem and its solution.