I started writing this article sitting in a Landraumat in Singapore couple of months back, waiting for our clothes to dry (the glamorous expat experience, living for weeks off a suitcase). I want this ridiculous anecdote to clumsily illustrate that I strongly believe that women and men are absolutely equally equipped to assume the same duties and responsibilities. Household duties have to be shared equally (even if it’s only the second time I take care of laundry in 10 years!). Kids’ education too. All aspects of family life. Sports are the same — I was so glad that Fiona Kolbinger finished ahead of all men a grueling 2500 miles long bike race across Europe, leaving the first man 150 miles behind!
I believe in balanced dual careers, and equal opportunities too. I had the chance to mentor just about as many men and women in my career…better, I’ve actually never thought about them in women/men, just individuals who deserve help, and can also help me learn and change. To me, “the basis of sex” — as in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story — should not be a differentiation in our lives, private or professional. We’re all human after all.
However, I am still frustrated this thought is not more prevalent. Equal opportunity to achieve your potential irrespective of gender does not seem to hold yet in lots of societies. Starting with a domain I know well — the global workplace. Exceptionally, some Nordic European countries do better in diversity. And we see some visible amazing positive examples, role models, such as the new Solvay’s CEO. But by and large, across the world C-Suite and leadership teams still lack women.
After years of very visible efforts to promote women, results are disappointing. So what did we get wrong?
And it struck me about how is easy the answer is. Whilst it’s proven that women are better equipped to manage in the 2020’s, and have in average way more effective leadership styles. But as pointed out in the great work from Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, there’s still a hurdle 6 years after his article — we continue to promote “incompetent men”. Not by lack of trying and affirmative action. But we’ve worked much more on fixing the parity, achieve targets on KPIs, than changing the workplace. Mostly because it’s easier to “measure demographics change” and work the metric than trying to shift the fundamental inclusion paradigm. We’ve focused on a count of “diversity” which should have been a lagging indicator, not a leading one.
We need to work inclusion before diversity.
I remember a speech from a Senior Executive 10 years ago, about diversity and supporting women. At the time the case for action was that “when women are in a meeting, things are different”. He never really managed to tell us how, but he ensured us that it was clear — and he did not seem to care to get “hearts and minds” on anything anyway. In his assertive way, he was educating us on why he was sure he was doing the right thing. No discussion allowed. As a backdrop… he was a white mid 50’s male, chemical engineer, worked in one single industry, climbed up the corporate ladder in one and only company as a single career person, moved 5 times the family across the world while his wife would take care of their kids and the whole relocation effort.
He was clear in that forum about what he meant by diversity — promoting non-white and non-male. But he never seemed to understand what “dual career” means, neither did he understand that moving a family can be complex. He pushed all assertive chemical engineers with superior command of English he could find that would happen to be women. He promoted as quickly as he could to big exposed jobs as many women there was around. He was doing his job — what he was commanded to do. Simplifying the problem down to a “single career” household. Open to assertive chemical engineers… In the end, it’s another form of cooptation, or “similarity bias”. The “basis of sex” became luckily secondary, but behaviors of these women managers raising quickly are quite similar same to of those of the men who pushed them. Because we still favor the same visible “leadership traits” — men and women alike. And as Chamorro-Premuzic points out, miss the opportunity to have more competent managers.
Interestingly some women got this right, and surf that wave. “Women Interest groups” replacing the once mocked “boys clubs” totally integrated the fact that the world was not changing, and that success will only be given to alpha-females aggressively claiming the seat they deserve at the table. Leveraging same recipes of assertiveness through “leadership training”, cooptation, networking, and mastering corporate politics for personal success over general interest.
The rhetoric is identical to the “wolves of wall street” of the 80’s and its golden boys — “power play”, “leading the charge”, and “leaning in”. Far from “building an inclusive society”.
Don’t get me wrong — there are unfortunately billions of women in this world who are not given the chance to compete fairly in the society, and the work place is no exception. But in societies where women’s rights are established, let’s lead by broadening the base of inclusion. There are tremendous benefits in listening and embedding people who are different from us.
- “Engineers led companies” struggling with innovation can make giant leaps by giving a seat at the table to people with arts degrees, who would have creativity in their DNA.
- Companies only hiring at campuses for internal development can benefit from diversity of views, bringing experienced people with different views on markets or processes.
- “Western companies” who open to different cultures and leadership styles will thrive in expanding their markets in other parts of the world.
- “EQ rich” leaders next to “IQ and assertiveness” leaders will help integrate and retain millennials.
- People who had non-linear careers can understand better that there is more than one ways to get to the top. And those managers will do a better job at motivating and retaining talents who need to balance work and life over a lifetime.
Nothing is lost, and some good examples are popping up. Change will come from us all, in influential or leadership position — but it will be hard, fundamental. There’s still a long path towards becoming the fair and inclusive “great society” that mankind deserves. Hum…”man” kind — I have to find something better and more inclusive.
Hemka, Singapore, August 2019.