Cracking the Code on Gender Equity

Why have so many companies failed to make much progress when it comes to achieving gender parity in their senior ranks? Perhaps even more important than looking back, what really needs to happen next to grow the pool of female talent at the executive ranks, so that we can finally achieve gender equity at the C-level and in our boardrooms?

I get asked these questions in almost every meeting I have with SHAMBAUGH’s clients when it comes to strategizing about how to improve gender equity in their company. While the solution isn’t simple, this quote from Albert Einstein can guide us in the right direction: “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

With this wisdom in mind, it’s time that we crack the ceiling of only around one-third of women—34 percent—in senior management roles, and in the tech industry in particular that reportedly has only 11 percent of women execs at Fortune 500 companies. (Some tech firms are pushing hard to do better than this—I just learned that SAP reached its goal to have one in four management positions at the company filled by women—yet we still have a long way to go.)

Overcoming Diversity Fatigue

Let’s begin by understanding the problem better. Part of the issue is that we feel drained by the topic since it keeps resurfacing without being adequately solved—I refer to this as “gender fatigue” or “diversity fatigue.” It means that while we are tired of talking about this issue, we’re forced to keep circling back to it since it hasn’t gone away. We scratch our heads wondering why, despite taking steps like implementing diversity initiatives and trainings, we are not making the tangible progress we should. We aren’t seeing big enough improvements when it comes to having as many women at the leadership table as men.

Yet while management teams tend to put their focus on women as a key solution for enhancing, growing, and advancing their female talent, rare is the company that puts as much focus on the gender that holds the majority of the leadership and decision-making positions in our organizations: men. While women are certainly part of the solution, this over-focus on women’s role in achieving gender equity and under-focus on men’s role begs the question: why aren’t we better leveraging men, who occupy nearly three-quarters of the key management positions and over three-quarters of the board seats?

There is an underlying assumption that men just don’t care or are unaware of how the lack of women in leadership hurts a company’s business outcomes. But based on SHAMBAUGH’s research as well as my experience of coaching many male executives on this issue, it’s clear that many men in leadership positions are very aware of the gender imbalance. In fact, they’re not dismissing the idea that they may be part of the solution. So the issue isn’t that men don’t care; it’s that many male executives are unsure how to make a real difference in the stagnant stats around gender equity.

Here’s an example: just yesterday, I met with a room filled with men and one woman exploring a solution to grow and advance their women in the workplace. The men were engaged with the topic but struggled to express themselves during the discussion. Reading between the lines, I discerned a common theme from the men’s comments: they expressed having a hard time engaging with women on advancement issues. One male manager said to the group: “It’s awkward communicating with women on issues that might affect their advancement opportunities. It’s doubly difficult when I need to provide feedback that could be difficult regarding their performance, so often I just defer and don’t provide feedback.” What I have learned through conversations like this with men is that counter to their presumed style or supposedly masculine persona, they are indirectly asking for help when they make statements like this.

Here are some steps your organization or leadership team can take to harness men’s willingness to help by engaging them as champions of gender equity:

  • Help men show up with their whole self. As I discussed in my book Make Room For Her, there are many areas where men can learn from women. Men may not be bringing certain aspects of themselves to work if they don’t feel that there is cultural support for them to lead differently, particularly if they feel they lack strong skills in certain areas. Encourage male executives to expand their leadership toolkit to include skills like better listening, empathy, collaboration, and holistic thinking.
  • Provide coaching and development. While diversity training is often targeted at developing women’s leadership competencies, formal and informal training initiatives can be helpful in helping men develop the skill sets above. Men can also be coached around key inclusive behaviors such as giving and receiving feedback across gender lines and how to manage a diverse workforce.
  • Engage men as mentors and sponsors. Many men are willing to serve as mentors and sponsors to women and just need to be asked to participate. Creating formal corporate mentorship and sponsorship programs—and holding managers accountable for participation—can help women rise off of their sticky floors.
  • Bring men into the fold. Women’s network events and development programs won’t be as effective without male decision makers in the mix to learn and grow alongside women. Be sure diversity events are all-inclusive and not gender-specific.

It is only by engaging men and women together that we can finally address and solve the key business issues behind the lagging inequities. When companies facilitate the ability of both genders to bring their unique and different views and styles to the table (and particularly into the boardroom), it creates infinitely better outcomes than relying on only one view or perspective. The ultimate goal for all companies should be to unite men and women in a common purpose: to reach gender parity at the leadership level through a unified vision and shared voice. This is what will allow our teams and organizations to finally crack the code on gender equity.

To learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s key offerings visit

Rebecca Shambaugh is a contributing editor for Harvard Business Review and blogger for the Huffington Post. She is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor, Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton, and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results



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