Gender Balance ≠ Gender Equity

In my work with organizations across the country, I find there is a common misconception that having a gender-balanced workforce automatically leads to gender equity. The reality is that simply having a balance of men and women within an organization or on a leadership team does not mean that their strengths and skills are being equally utilized.

Harvard Business School discovered this same reality, as described in a recent article in the New York Times titled “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity.” Despite solid numbers of female students and faculty, Harvard found these women were not performing at a level commensurate with their potential. Female students entered the program with similar test scores and grades as men, but then consistently underperformed their male counterparts in classes where participation accounted for close to 50 percent of their grade. Administrators found that because the women tended to be less assertive in class than the men, professors had an unintentional gender bias that was reflected in the grades. Similarly, these unintentional gender biases had a negative impact on tenure among junior female professors. Students commonly perceived female professors to be less knowledgeable, experienced and authoritative than their male counterparts.

To combat these trends, Harvard implemented a systemic approach. First, the school initiated changes to address gender biases and create an environment where women were given more opportunities to participate in classroom discussions. In addition, the school coached female students to look at how their beliefs and behaviors might be inadvertently sabotaging their success. And finally, administrators provided ongoing feedback and support for untenured female professors to help them enhance their presence, authority and sense of voice.

Interestingly, Harvard’s approach is very similar to the holistic solution SHAMBAUGH uses to help clients foster Integrated Leadership throughout their organizations. First, we identify norms regarding the value of women and what they bring to the table and translate those into a business case that is shared throughout the organization. When women feel they are genuinely valued and appreciated for their skills, perspectives and thinking, they are more willing to step up, speak up and use those core strengths to benefit the organization.

We then coach men to help them build better working relationships with women and understand their unconscious biases about women. The truth is that we all have gender biases – men about women and women about men – and these biases have a very real impact on the workplace.

The final piece of the Integrated Leadership puzzle involves coaching women to look at their own Sticky Floors. Even the most capable women can benefit from mentoring on how to reach beyond their comfort zone, exude confidence, develop a strong executive presence and gain the credibility they deserve. Sponsorship is also crucial for ensuring women reach their full potential. Research shows that the majority of women who are promoted into the top levels of leadership have sponsors who are committed to fostering their professional development and bringing them up in the organization.

The gender inequities that Harvard Business School discovered in its own program are quite similar to what we at SHAMBAUGH see in other organizations and institutions. In a work environment that has been dominated by men for 200-plus years, simply having balanced numbers does not make for a truly integrated environment. Too many organizations mistakenly focus on achieving gender balance in a quantitative sense. The key to long-term success and sustained competitive advantage is to focus on leveraging the collective human intelligence, skills and perspectives that gender-balanced teams offer. It’s not about quantity; it’s about quality.

For more information on gender biases and Integrated Leadership, check out my latest book, Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results.

Becky’s talk at TEDx: It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor

Learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s Sponsorship Programs, Becky Shambaugh’s Keynote Offerings, Leadership and Professional Development Programs, Integrated Leadership, Coaching and our signature Women In Leadership and Learning Program (WILL) by visiting

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Rebecca Shambaugh

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