When it comes to balancing the scales for gender equality, Corporate America has a long way to go. Yet while achieving gender parity at the executive level remains a distant goal, many are growing weary of repeatedly hearing about the issue.
An article in the Wall Street Journal this month hammers home the point that there is a serious disconnect in how each gender views progress toward corporate equality at the senior levels. In short, the perception gap boils down to men feeling that the mission has been largely already accomplished, while women see a serious “work in progress.” Despite significant investment by many organizations in inclusion and gender equity, it’s akin to pushing a rock up a steep hill. There has been little progress, and in some respects, these efforts have unintentionally perpetuated gender segregation.
To dig into this a little deeper, I conducted interviews with a number of men on this issue. I learned some interesting and surprising things about men’s views on gender inclusion and their lingering fatigue around gender balance and inclusion:
–Much of the work that has been done in this area has caused more men to feel threatened—and ironically more like they are in the minority when in fact they are the majority.
–Overstretched, mostly male leaders and executives are ushered into workshops about unconscious bias, only to walk away with what feels like just one more expectation added to a crowded list of key performance indicators.
–Some men are expressing fears that decision-making is no longer merit-based and that the women they manage increasingly expect a “free pass” to leadership. They also feel they are forced to promote under-qualified women because of the company’s diversity targets.
Whether these findings are fact or not, we can use these valuable insights to do better. The key is first to understand that men think women are further up the ladder than they actually are, and then take a disruptive approach to address the perception gap. To keep the momentum going and combat the fatigue that’s emerging around gender equality and diversity, here are three strategies on how we can keep this priority front and center—not just for women, but for all of us:
- Change the entire ecosystem. One of the most fundamental causes of diversity fatigue is the lack of a comprehensive, programmatic solution—which would generally be run by Human Resources or Diversity and Inclusion—to increase gender balance. For many, such initiatives are viewed instead as one-off efforts that fail to contribute to bottom-line business priorities. To experience real change, the entire ecosystem needs to evolve, with gender inclusion becoming part of a more comprehensive culture change or broader strategy. Such a strategy doesn’t hinge exclusively on increasing the number of women in leadership roles, but is instead recognized for umbrella themes like driving talent utilization, retention, and organizational agility, which ultimately feed into innovation and tangible business outcomes.
- Start creating a unified conversation. Since we know that men and women tend to view issues relating to gender equality differently, we must move toward creating a shared language on how both genders can lead together. As I discussed in my last post, SHAMBAUGH emphasizes the importance of bringing men into women’s network forums to break down the isolation factor that women may feel in “women only” events. When companies create a safe place for men and women to talk about their shared goals, it helps to reinforce a unified voice. Since many factors can get in the way of a unified conversation between the genders on these sensitive issues—including unconscious biases and lack of inclusive language—SHAMBAUGH partners with companies to coach and advise women on how to successfully create male allies. Some critical first steps are inviting men to participate, helping them to feel valued as a part of the dialogue, and showing men specifically how they can lend their support through sponsorship and other types of advocacy.
- Be bold to crack the norm. Once we have men in the room, women need to be bold and believe in their own leadership and value. It’s not always comfortable to call out language that isn’t inclusive or point out gender-based biases, but it’s important for women to say something when they see something. If you notice that a woman gets interrupted in a meeting multiple times, call out this behavior to the group to bring awareness to it. You can help other women when this happens during a meeting by simply saying, “Can we pause a minute? Nancy has been trying to share her view and has been interrupted several times. Let’s please give her the floor.”
The bottom line is that we have just hit the tip of the iceberg on this issue. There is much below the surface that we are not yet fully aware of, but still need to take into account. So now is the time to take what we do know about the perception gap and combat change fatigue with these disruptive and practical solutions.
Have Rebecca speak at your organization on "Cracking the Code on Gender Fatigue"
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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.