“I put my neck on the line for her, and now she’s coming whining into my office saying she’s not sure she can do the job??!” My friend, one of the most senior businesswomen in her country, is irate. She is the only woman on the Executive Committee of her global company, and has just worked hard to promote another woman into a senior role. She is shocked by the reaction: rather than gratitude, the woman is reacting with doubt and nerves and second thoughts. And I got an earful:
- “Sheryl Sandberg is right, women need to step up and stop whining.”
- “I used to be a good girl and worked hard and waited to be noticed — until I figured out that that would get me nowhere. You have to speak up, network, and don’t cry.”
- “Women need to make up their minds. You want it? Get with the game!”
- “It’s a tough world — don’t be naïve. Grow up.”
- “Don’t think that just because I’m a woman, too, I’m going to be nice to you or assume we have a special connection.”
This echoes pretty closely a recent series of interviews published in the New York Times about the advice from top women to other women. The message is pretty consistent:: If you want to succeed, adapt to the dominant norm. But I would argue that this isn’t ambitious enough for our times. And interestingly, most of the men I work with who are pushing on gender balance want to change those norms. They don’t want women to adapt. They want the system to adapt.
Women remain divided on the issue, and their complex and multi-faceted attitudes are usually a result of many variables, including age, political competence, support networks, and – especially — the context and culture within which they are operating. In balance-unfriendly environments, women can become cynical about the potential for change, and see men as the enemy and other women as a refuge, recourse and/ or responsibility. In balance-friendly environments, men and women tend to acknowledge the benefits of balance, and their shared pushing neutralizes the potential backlash of a more divisive, gender-wars approach.
I suggest to my frustrated friend that the real challenge in her story is not the reluctant woman she’d like to promote. It’s why she is (or feels) responsible for improving the gender balance in her company, rather than that balance being seen as the responsibility of the entire Executive Team. Why is it a woman who is trying to bring in another woman? Why is this all framed, even in her own mind, as a women’s issue, rather than as a business issue for her company?
Luckily, women are not the only ones debating gender issues anymore. The debate has dramatically shifted over the past decade. Now that women represent 60% of global university graduates and 80% of consumer goods purchasing decision-makers, the balance between men and women as both customers and employees has become a business issue of concern to many leaders and most large companies. Most large multinationals are actively pushing for gender balance (although they are achieving that goal with variable rates of success).
And since most large companies are still overwhelmingly led and dominated by men in senior roles, the real fault line on gender issues in all the companies where I work, is actually – and largely invisibly — between men and men. Between the progressive leaders pushing for major culture shifts and the male leaders who don’t yet see this as particularly relevant to their bottom lines.
The real battle lines are in endless board rooms and executive teams where, slowly but surely, men are pressuring, convincing and leading other men to gender balance their teams. It takes a lot of committed and convinced leadership. I’ve seen it in action in company after company and team after team.
It’s easier for men to lead on gender issues than it is for women. They are not seen to be pushing militantly for their “own camp.” They are not accused of self-interest and favoritism. They don’t have to deal with anxieties about the possibility of being a “token hire.”
I’m not suggesting it is easy for men, however. It takes a lot of courage for men to stand up to other men on a topic like gender balance. It is an emotional issue for both sexes, and it takes quite a bit of practice, understanding and finesse to become a good leader able to lead effectively across genders.
My job, over the past decade, has introduced me to thousands of managers, almost all of whom have been men, nudging, explaining and leading their colleagues towards balance. Just last week, I was watching an exceptional male leader bringing his all-male, though very multi-cultural, team along with him. What did he do?
- He allowed and encouraged a very open debate of the topic, among a hugely diverse team, including Brazilians, Indians and Chinese, inviting the quiet members to share their views. He never judged, but recognized where people were.
- He led by example, using his own journey and lack of understanding of all the subtleties of the gender journey to say it was OK to admit needing to build skills, that he himself had taken a couple of years to really grasp what this was all about.
- He explained how he personally was convinced of the benefits he had found in working with balanced teams and businesses.
- And he insisted that he didn’t want women to adapt, but that he wanted to create a culture that allowed everyone to excel.
I couldn’t help comparing the tone and message that he was offering to his team with my friend’s tone and message to the woman she was trying to promote. What a different culture and context both were creating. One creative and positive, the other defensive and critical. One set up to succeed, the other set up to fail. One part of a corporate-wide push, the other a lonely hand up in an unfriendly desert.
This same scenario is playing out globally, at both country and company level. The number one key to gender balance is skilled, inclusive leadership with a determined focus on getting everyone on board to the benefits of balance. And while today the common perception is that women are leading the way, the really untold story is how many guys are, slowly but surely, and somewhat quietly, involved in the shift. And getting good at it too.
Women need to recognize that this is not their battle alone, and that a growing number of men (though not the majority) are increasingly skilled allies, and absolutely essential to scaling the shift. We will not, as women, I can see from my front-row seat, change the balance on our own. Nor should we try. In order to buy into balance, men need to co-create it. And women need to expect nothing less of them.