5 Narratives We Need to Challenge to Enable Greater Gender Equality in Leadership
Posted on 13th January 2021 at 13:21
I attended a number of webinars in 2020 on women in leadership. It is a topic I have been involved in one way or another over the last 6 years. I mentor other women, I have been involved in a number of diversity initiatives and I advocate for women in leadership quite vocally. However, I have to admit recently I have become quite bored of the same narrative trotted out as explanation for why it is important. We have fallen into the trap of having surface level conversations which don’t look deeply enough at cause and effect. This, for me, is the primary reason the rate of change is so uninspiring. Unless we are willing to have courageous conversations and address the real underlying drivers of the resistance to change, the rate of change will continue at its glacial pace.
#1 2020 has demonstrated we need to talk not just about profitability and also about power
There is now a tsunami of empirical studies₁ from consultancy firms, economic bodies such as the OECD and governments globally, which demonstrate that greater equality and diversity leads to better profitability, better governance, more creativity and innovation amongst other things. Unless you have been hiding under a rock, I’m guessing you have heard this too. As interest in the area of equality has grown, the evidence-base has grown too. A ‘carrot’ widely used by people advocating for greater change is improved GDP growth and greater profitability. A change which arguably would benefit both men and women. Despite this, we are making little, if any, real change.
Understanding something to be true and acting on that truth are two different phenomena. Any rational person understands the numerical evidence supporting greater equality to be true. Therefore, any rational person interested in generating higher GDP growth and greater profitability would act quickly to capitalise on this clear opportunity. The fact that there hasn’t been a mass move to do this reveals this is not the big ‘carrot’ everyone assumes. The absence of change highlights the lack of willingness to change the existing power dynamic and the systems they support. Until we are willing to say this out loud and question the behavioural issues which support that, we will not make meaningful change.
Confirming this idea is early data from 2020 which shows we are going backwards. An event of unimaginable proportions arrives in our lives disrupting everything and women have been disproportionately impacted. A McKinsey₂ article in July highlighted the problem ‘Given trends we have observed over the past few months, in a gender-regressive scenario in which no action is taken to counter these effects, we estimate that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector’. The pandemic means that current and future GDP growth and profitability are enormously threatened and despite this, one obvious solution like greater equality continues to be ignored rather than accelerated. This should be the perfect opportunity to change and evolve when we have suffered such huge disruption anyway. The fact that it hasn’t created a drive for change underlines the weakness of focusing solely on the numbers. It shows we are using data that we think will evoke change. The real problem is not the numbers because if it was simply about greater profitability, any rational person would act. This is much more insidious. It is really about power and not wanting to release that power. Until we are willing to deal with that root cause we will not move the dial talking about profitability or any other number for that matter.
#2 Women, like men, don’t universally make the best leaders; People committed to their personal development make better leaders
The second narrative that needs addressing is the growing claim that women make ‘better leaders’. I have watched with interest as women have been hailed as better leaders globally. I see this argument just as polarising as the previous idea that men make better leaders and equally untrue. There is no doubt that we have excellent examples of female leadership in the world currently. However, this does not mean men are universally bad leaders. Clearly, we simply have the wrong men in power. The polarity of these statements leads to more competition, comparison and unhealthy dynamics between genders. And again, it lacks depth. When we are willing to sit on the surface of complex matters, we don’t make change because we are not talking about the real issues.The best leaders are people, regardless of gender, who are committed to their personal development. Self-aware people dedicated to understanding themselves and their leadership style make the best leaders because they work at it. Integrating their masculine and feminine elements to become more healed, more whole and, therefore, more aware of how their actions impact those around them.
Leadership is not simply a skill it is a choice. A choice of how we show up in the world for ourselves and others. Leadership is neither masculine nor feminine but how we combine and integrate all parts of who we are. In the personality test the Enneagram, I am a type 8. We are natural born leaders. High in social skills. Visionary. Examples of people I share this type with are Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Serena Williams. However, before you are blinded by my halo, it is alleged I also share this type with a certain, soon to be former, world leader. To quote the Enneagram Institute₃: ‘Eights are self-confident, strong, and assertive. Protective, resourceful, straight-talking, and decisive, but can also be ego-centric and domineering’. This is a pretty good description of me. The choice for me daily is who do I want to be? How we lead is always a choice. To lead with integrity, we must be committed to developing ourselves and our self-awareness. We grow our strengths when we can see our weaknesses. There is a shadow side to everything and everyone. A key leadership skill is bringing those weaknesses to our own attention before we let those weaknesses become someone else’s problem. A commitment to personal development is a foundation stone of good leadership. Unfortunately, it remains absent in the toolkit of a lot of our current leaders.
#3 Masculinity and Vulnerability; If we don't work to create a world which allows men to be more vulnerable, we can't then act surprised when examples of toxic masculinity end up in power
I attended a poetry workshop in September. One of the topics we explored as a group was the idea of masculinity and vulnerability. We discussed the type of world we want for the men in our lives. At the end of the exercise, we each took time to write a poem about the topic from our own perspective. While I was searching for my own unique lens to see this through, I thought of my new nephew who was born during 2020. I imagined the world I would like for him so he can be all he is meant to be. Like his older sister, I want him to have the best chance to embrace who he is. I’m not sure that world exists for men today. We create no space them for them to be whole. To be vulnerable.
When we see bad examples of masculinity in the world, it is too easy to forget that we currently don’t serve men properly either. Just as women are often perceived as ‘soft’, men are not allowed be soft. That, in 2020, macho leaders are so easily elected tells me that an antiquated view of men is still so effortlessly accepted. If we don’t work harder to create a world which allows men to be vulnerable, we limit the types of leaders we get. We must show that vulnerability and leadership co-exist. I don’t believe you can be a good leader and not be vulnerable. The position implies the willingness to show yourself more fully. And perhaps more importantly, we limit the potential for all men to be the people they want to be and have the lives they want if we do not embrace their capacity to be vulnerable.
The real reason for greater equality is not just to have more women in areas previously dominated by men but to ensure that everyone, both men and women, can have the life they aspire to. That a more rounded experience of what it is to be human is accepted as a human right.
#4 Diversity is more than getting women into traditionally ‘male’ areas, we must also acknowledge the power of traditionally ‘female’ areas
The need to get more women into areas like STEM is widely spoken about. This is about more than the optics. As an article in Forbes₄ stated; ‘This push goes beyond the need for simple gender parity. It is not just a case of making the STEM workforce fair – we need more women in STEM roles to make scientific innovations useful and, more importantly, safe . After all, how relevant can innovations really be if they do not even take into consideration the needs of half the population?’
Yet alongside the broader idea about getting women into traditionally male dominated areas is a silent narrative that these areas are 'superior' areas of the business and life. What I see less focus on is ensuring traditionally female areas of work and business are promoted to the same level. In today’s business world talent is a scarce resource, creativity is now a primary business need and, as we have noted, leadership development is a basic requirement. If talent and leadership are this important, clearly HR functions (often dominated by women) when empowered properly can completely transform the culture and commercial impact of an organisation. In a world with growing technological influence, the ability to be creative and visionary in leadership remains innately human and a differentiating factor for all business in the future. In broader society, this is also a theme. We continue to undervalue professions which have traditionally been predominantly female such as nursing. It is very convenient to describe predominantly female careers as ‘vocational’ and use that as a rationale to pay those professions far less than their contribution to society warrants. We do not achieve equality simply by diversifying areas which are predominantly male but also by challenging accepted narratives about how we view sectors and roles currently dominated by women.
#5 We are simply not asking big enough questions or seeking big enough outcomes
We need to be more radical in our thinking. Should we even want such a strong focus on ‘greater profitability’ at a time when the climate crisis, directly caused by over consumption of resources, is reaching a pivotal point of no return? Would we have reached this point of destroying mother earth – the dominant feminine archetype – if women had always been at the table? There is growing body of work that greater diversity is also better for the environment. A report released recently by BloombergNEF titled ‘Gender Diversity and Climate Innovation’₅ stated that ‘having at least 30% (women) makes a key difference to climate governance and innovation’. Taking this into consideration, are we even clear on the real outcomes we want from equality?
Today, as we put together diversity programs and leadership training, we are doing it in a system which is not supportive of new outcomes. We are asking people to be diverse leaders in organisations and political systems which have little intention of challenging accepted outcomes. A key stated outcome of having more diversity (gender or otherwise) in leadership should clearly be a different structure, organisation or culture afterwards. Otherwise we are asking diverse people to fit into problematic systems. If we promote diverse leadership, the first question we should ask people who arrive in these positions is; what would you change? And how can we empower you to do that?
A moment of disruption like a pandemic shakes our foundations. It is not a moment to contract; it is an opportunity to expand. A chance to make meaning out of our collective crisis through change. Gender equality is about so much more than profitability and GDP growth. It is about the lives we want to live, the planet we want to preserve, the opportunities we want to offer ALL people. My question for you is – are you not bored with these narratives too? With the lack of equality? With the inability of our cultures and corporate structures to provide the fertile environment for both men and women to live a life full to the brim with potential? And if so, are you willing to have the difficult, courageous conversations needed to make change?
₁Gender equality: Essential for sustainable growth - OECD
₂COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects | McKinsey & ₂Don’t Let the Pandemic Set Back Gender Equality (hbr.org)
₃Type Eight — The Enneagram Institute
₄The Need For More Women In STEM Roles Goes Beyond Simple Diversity (forbes.com)
₅BNEF Long Form Template (Grid) (bbhub.io).
Tagged as: conscious business, conscious leadership, culture, equality, gender equality, leadership, men, narrative, women
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