Are You Leading Half of Your Company?

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We’ve noticed a pattern with clients over the past year. We (the Inclusionary Leadership Group is the consulting arm and the founding sponsor of the Better Man Conference) are engaged to help leadership with gender relations. Our first step is an assessment. The process consists of individual phone interviews with men and women on the executive team. The interviews are open-ended. We start  by asking, “tell me your view of gender relations at XYZ company.” 

First, interviews with the executive men take on average 30 minutes. The interviews with executive women take the full hour scheduled, and many have to be stopped to stay within the time allotted. Second, the content of the responses is remarkably different. While the men unanimously feel that the organization is motivated to improve, their overall view is that they are part of a healthy, diverse workplace, that is equal, open, and merit based.

The women, however, feel differently – they say that the men in the organization don’t “walk the talk” with regard to equity and equality – the men’s intentions, they say, are good, but “they don’t seem to get it.” The glass ceiling is very real for the women – they do not feel they are in a position to move up to senior levels and feel set up to fail by a lack of support with difficult assignments. Several express the view that “women have to be perfect in order to get a shot. The women get training while the men can be less than perfect. Instead of training, the men get staff and support.”

When we shared the results of the assessment one CEO responded,“it’s like they’re working in two different companies!”

If the experience described above were unique to a single client, we could consider it an anomaly, but the fact is that we run into this experience in almost every company we engage with. While we do not claim that results represent a significant data set, the patterns are striking. Given that, for most companies, leadership becomes more male-dominated as you move up the hierarchy, the men in leadership run the risk of leading half of their company if they are not aware of or continue to ignore the experiences of the other half.

Women in corporate America live in a different world from men. The world that women work in gives rise to pain and frustration and, from the organization’s point of view, wastes an inordinate amount of talent and creativity, not to mention feeding toxic culture. As long as male leaders remain unaware of what it’s like for women working in their organization, this situation will persist. According to the 2018 Women in the Workplace report, “Progress on gender diversity at work has stalled. To achieve equality, companies must turn good intentions into concrete action.”

On the other hand, studies have shown that where women’s experience is recognized and steps are taken to rectify the conditions that are causing personal and organizational pain, productivity, profitability, return on equity, and innovation all benefit.

So how do male leaders move from leading half their organization to leading everyone? Step One in moving from good intentions to concrete action, is awareness. In our work we start by depersonalizing the lack of awareness. We assume that no man in corporate leadership is intentionally discriminating against or limiting opportunities for women. Rather, we work from a place of men being culturally conditioned to certain blind spots. Two critical areas are unconscious bias and unrecognized privilege.

Unconscious Bias refers to the phenomenon whereby certain situations can automatically activate implicit stereotypes and attitudes that then affect our perceptions, judgments, and behavior. The key word here is implicit, meaning both not stated directly, and without any doubts or questions.

Unconscious bias is not only not stated directly, all evidence suggests that it is not even experienced directly (hence unconscious). Equally important, it is not held as an opinion or perception, but as factual. One believes that women are not as capable as men. Even when we learn and know better, the biases still come up. Though we may suppress taking action on them, they leak out in jokes, microaggressions, and other unconscious ways. Studies using the Harvard Implicit Associations Test show that most people more easily associate men with science and women with the arts, men with careers and women with homemaking, and men with being leaders and women with being supporters.

Unrecognized Privilege is in many ways the cultural equivalent of individual Unconscious Bias. It describes the fact that certain attributes (e.g., being white, male, tall, straight) receive preferential treatment compared to others (e.g., being female, black, short, LGBTQ). Again, this is often done without awareness, but is no less real for it. One study found that when hiring managers for a (hypothetical) technical position were given resumés that were identical except for the applicant’s name, that STEM professors perceived the “female” candidate as less competent and were less willing to mentor her or to hire her as a lab manager. They also recommended paying her a lower salary. The female candidate, we’ll call her Jennifer, was offered, on average, $4,000 per year (13%) less than the “male” candidate.

Unconscious Bias and Unrecognized Privilege retain their power by operating outside of conscious awareness. Many organizations have started to rely on educational programs that focus specifically on identifying Unconscious Bias (and to a lesser extent Unrecognized Privilege). The focus is effective at helping male managers understand the gaps in awareness that they might have. Interestingly, though, programming that doesn’t go beyond Unconscious Bias is shown to be less effective at changing behavior. You might say that people become aware of bias and privilege as theoretical concepts but not as something that lives in them personally.

Engaging with leading the whole organization starts with awareness, but it doesn’t end there. What transforms awareness from the abstract to the world of action is ownership – taking personal responsibility for bias and privilege and recognizing, without shame or blame, that they operate in me. What allows ownership is recognizing the impact that my acting from bias and privilege has had on others. 

This is where it gets sticky. It is human nature to want to be judged by our intentions, regardless of our impact. Where we humans get into trouble is when we defend our intention (“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone”) but ignore the unintended impact. If I swing my arms to loosen up and I hit you in the nose, I didn’t mean to, but I’m responsible for the damage to you, nonetheless. When we can assume positive intent, we don’t need to defend our intentions or to interpret a negative impact as evidence of bad intent, and we can own our unintended impact.

In our work in corporations, particularly with men, we take pains to remove shame and blame from the equation, allowing men to confront, however uncomfortably, their impact – on female co-workers, on wives and daughters, on women and anyone belonging to a non-dominant group – that is where change really begins. Once men can take the action step of owning their impact, they can begin to listen generously – non-defensively, not feeling attacked or shamed – to other experiences, and at that point the two worlds begin to overlap.

Based on experiences like those that opened this article, we have found it is safest to assume that male leaders, as a rule, are leading half their organization. By opening the channels of communication and providing tools for listening, speaking, and acting consciously, organizations begin to come together and to defeat Unconscious Bias and Unrecognized Privilege, not only between men and women but between different races and ethnicities, between all parts of the gender spectrum, and all sexual orientations.

by Ed Gurowitz, PhD with Kriz Bell

Kriz Bell