2010 Gender Equality is Here, and Other Media Myths that Keep Unconscious Bias Alive by Nicki Gilmour

A weekly column by Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of theglasshammer.com.

Welcome to my new weekly column on the latest news, surveys and trends on professional women in the workplace (I’ll sometimes write and sometimes podcast). I aim to keep you updated and to provide deeper insight into positive changes both employers, and women who are breaking the glass ceiling everyday, can make to improve working life. Feel free to comment and continue this discussion on the social network which can be found on our community page.

The Economist kicked off the year with Rosie the Riveter on the cover, proclaiming “We did it.” What exactly did we do?

Well, we became 50% of the workforce, generally, across all industries. We can interpret that in two ways, either as a positive advancement for women as they are able to have economic freedom by earning their own wage or that that women have to work to support themselves and their families; it does not necessary mean that we are actually getting somewhere as leaders and managers in equal numbers to men.

I have to be honest. I had to check that I wasn’t reading an old copy of the Economist from January 1980 when I read the words, “The revolution has been achieved with only a modicum of friction. Men have, by and large welcomed women’s invasion of the workplace.” Invasion of the workplace? Last time I checked, going to work to try and strategically improve your processes, and therefore the company as a whole, by delivering results in whichever area you work isn’t like invading Poland.

A quick look at the Economist’s stats would suggest that gender equality is still a way off.

  1. Women make up less than 13% of board members in America.
  2. 2% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women and 5% of companies listed on the UK’s FTSE index are run by women.
  3. Only 50% of women who undertake MBAs remain in the workplace after childbirth, according to Marianne Bertrand of The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, in her work “Why Laura Isn’t CEO.”
  4. Goldman Sachs calculates that increasing women’s participation in the labor market will boost GDP by 21% in Italy, 19% in Spain, 16% in Japan, 9% in the US, France and Germany and finally by 8% in the UK.

The New Feminism?

The Economist continues with Schumpeter’s out of touch op-ed – a call to ignore what he terms “the new feminism,” and what I would consider to be respected academic work done by Alison Maitland and Avivah Wittenberg-Cox.

Their work encourages recognizing that women are different, and that gains can be made if we stop expecting women to act like men and understand there is more to be gained from diversity of thought – which has actually been proven to increase financial performance of a company.

As explained by Beth Brooke, Global Vice Chair of Ernst and Young, at the White House Project Benchmarks Study release breakfast here in New York:

“We highlight several research studies in our recent Groundbreakers report that show with a critical mass of women on a board, the organization achieves better financial performance and that a diverse group will outperform a homogeneous group of experts.”

Even McKinsey is not spared by the magazine. Its research on leadership performance (which shows that women regularly execute five of the nine leadership behaviors that lead to corporate success more frequently than men) is belittled as Schumpeter seems to think he is actually updating us on some new burgeoning trend – that women leaders behaving as women, not men, is “gaining followers in powerful places.” He imparts some final advice involving Margaret Thatcher as the ultimate role model, that “Women would be well advised to ignore the siren voices of new feminism. It would be a grave mistake to abandon old-fashioned meritocracy just at the time when it is turning to women’s advantage.”

Meritocracy. Good. Is my work is done here on theglasshammer.com then? Are you kidding? Several recent surveys conducted by non–profits and workplace consultants suggest we are far from equality. The White House Project Benchmarks Study shows that women represent 18% of leaders across 10 sectors in industry, with even fewer women taking the lead in Guns (military), Games (sport), and God (religion). The media myth of equal numbers is, in fact, meaningless, as is the continually repeated phrase “Mancession” due to 11.2% of men being unemployed, as opposed to a mere 8.6% of women (as quoted by the Economist). To me, this just reinforces the fact that men were in higher paid, more senior jobs to start with, since the cost-cutting began with the fat cats.

Questioning the “Choices” Myth

Then there is the good old default argument about the fairness of women earning less because they reproduce and then choose not to return to work.

Why they don’t return is simple, and boils down to two reasons. The first is that they can’t re-enter as they have lost their footing on the ladder; hence we have seen returner programs from progressive employers like Goldman Sachs, which pioneered a “returnship” for on-ramping female talent who had taken time out. (One headhunter once told me he puts any resume that has a break on it on pile B, which never is presented to the client.)

The second reason is that the workplace, for the most part, is set up in an unappealing manner based upon 1950s norms of hierarchy and patriarchy. It’s tiresome to give 100%, still be paid less, watch your male colleagues hang off your bosses door late at night asking for more clients, and watch deals happen on the golf course, from which you were excluded.

It’s not necessarily men’s fault and I am not advocating that we “fix the men” in the same way as some people suggest we must “fix the women”; it’s just the way the game has always been played and that is what must change if companies are serious about having female talent stay and continue to succeed. The heart of gender inequality lies firmly in workplace structure and unconscious bias which has been institutionalized and accepted as “just the way it is.” The problem starts with the way hiring is done: transactional box ticking, filling holes, and not strategically building pipeline or developing leaders (as, very often, the talent management function, the women’s group if the company has one, and the recruiting department have never actually met).

Changing the System

The real untapped issue lies with a new design of the workplace that is truly talent orientated and results-led. Flexible work shouldn’t be an issue and both men and women can have work/life fit and a glimpse of balance – to live their lives outside work, nurture the next generation, and, let’s face it, feel like we are not losing our minds in the endless juggle of modern day commitments and desires for leisure time.

Alison Maitland commented exclusively to theglasshammer.com:

“The old-fashioned meritocracy in which ‘Schumpeter’ puts such touching faith has unfortunately not delivered. This is evident from the persistent under-representation of women in senior jobs, which the Economist itself bemoans in its coverage.”

“As we explain in our book, Why Women Mean Business, companies need to ask why their own systems – which they perceive as being meritocratic – are failing to retain and promote women in larger numbers. Perhaps the ‘meritocracy’ on which they pride themselves is unconsciously skewed towards the dominant male norm. It’s assumed that because men have occupied positions of leadership for so long they are natural leaders – and women are not.”

“Business leaders increasingly say they want women to bring their different perspectives to the table, that they don’t want male clones. They could achieve this by questioning their own perceptions of what a leader should look like, which is based on the past, on what corporate leaders have been like, and open their eyes to the untapped talent of all kinds that is available to them and on which they will inevitably rely in the future.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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