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Want to build a gender-balanced culture? Be calm and carry-on

It’s a well-known fact in the HR and organizational development worlds that changing an organization’s culture in general is challenging. Now imagine the hurdles achieving a gender-diverse workplace faces. In essence, a gender-equal workplace challenges the existing power structure which, happens to be occupied by white males.

Few people like to give up the privileges that go along with being in power positions. Those in power never understand the experiences of the under-represented. Why? They’ve never experienced being outside the “power structure”. Consequently, they have no awareness or understanding of what it means for those who are. Prof. Michael Kimmel summed up the dilemma when he stated that “Privilege is invisible to those who have it”. Wade Davis former NFL player acknowledged that “Men will lose something [with gender equality], yes,” and went on to say “but what we will gain, what everyone will gain, is so SO much more than we can even imagine.” Many factors contribute to creating a corporate culture. Implicit bias is perhaps the most difficult to address since it permeates all aspects of the culture. Going from implicit (aka unconscious) bias to awareness is a critical key for moving towards a gender-balanced culture. As Kimmel said “We have to make men aware that gender is as important to us as it is to women.” It’s important to note at this point that a sustained transformation takes time, perseverance, patience, and an understanding of the complexities of this type of change. There will be a tipping point when gender equality from the executive suite to the staff level will no longer be an issue. I like to use the analogy of the subtly of seasonal changes – all at once the leaves fall the trees or the flowers are in full bloom. The changes are happening – slowly, very slowly. Many companies understand the value of advancing women.

Others are being “shamed” into recognizing the need to change their culture. Who can forget the situation at Uber, the BBC or VCs in Silicon Valley. There are other companies being “forced” into making changes through financial pressure. This year, State Street Global Advisors voted against 400 companies because they lacked female representation on their boards. The Massachusetts state pension board did the same when it “voted against or withheld its vote from 69% of the directors elections” out of 9,000 companies in its fund. To say that progress is painfully slow and frustrating is an understatement. Brande Stellings, a senior vice president at Catalyst, said in a recent New York Times article that “It’s pretty sad to see we’re struggling to tread water at having women represent 5 percent of C.E.O.s.”. But, it is happening. Rather than solely focusing on what is not happening, it would be valuable to acknowledge the progress we have made and to use that to build a compelling reason for promoting gender equality in the workplace. Do you think it is valuable to celebrate the small steps forward along with the challenges we still face? Let me know your thoughts.

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