Stop Trying to Fix Women, Fix the Systems

Provide women in leadership with equitable tools to close the wage gap

If you Google “women’s leadership books,” you will likely find titles that tout confidence, risk taking, influencing, and negotiation. In my first book, Pivot Point, I too identified authenticity, confidence, having a plan, connecting with purpose, influence, and negotiation skills as critical gap areas for women that are necessary to propel us forward. Sadly, progress has been stagnant since it was written in 2015. Since the early 2000s we have been subtly telling women to forget that they are women and to act more like men at work, as if years of gender socialized behaviors, ingrained in us, can be forgotten.


Gender is a construct

In fact, gender is not binary. We are not simply a man or a woman based on our given sex at birth. There is a gender spectrum. Increasingly, people are identifying themselves as gender neutral or non-binary, meaning that they do not identify with being exclusively a man or a woman. We have been socialized to behave in a way that aligns with our given sex, yet that is not the only option. For women, this is problematic, because as a society we favor masculine over feminine traits in the workplace. This explains why it is impressed upon women to set aside their feminine tendencies and to present a masculine front to advance their careers.

On the gender spectrum, femininity brings tremendous value to workplaces, especially when mingled with masculine traits. The feminine traits of collaboration, emotional intelligence, and tempered risk-taking lead to better business results. Asking women to be more like men is counterintuitive. The natural traits that we offer as women complement those of men, truly creating the ideal balance or the yin-yang effect we are after. Masculine traits balanced with feminine traits result in better leadership, higher employee engagement, and better business results.

Every industry is male-dominated

Workplace rules have been defined by men. Today’s workplace still somewhat resembles 1950s-era Mad Men: plagued with sexual harassment, women toiling behind the scenes in low-paying positions, socially mandated after-hour activities, and rigid in-office hour requirements.

In 2020, women only account for 6% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies and 20% of C-suite positions. As I referenced in my second book, ONE, this statistic is static and shows no signs of improvement. In fact, McKinsey’s latest “Women in the Workplace” report claims the number is receding. Recent female CEO departures signal a retreat from the once coveted leadership helm. Often, women in these positions feel constrained, constantly battling the gender tightrope bias of having to be feminine with the right dose of masculinity. It is exhausting day in and day out. That is the real reason women leave.

Conversely, when the rules are co-defined by women, we all thrive. Education is an area where women have outpaced their male counterparts for years. So why does that success not translate into the workplace? More women than men graduate from college, achieve higher GPAs, and obtain advanced degrees, yet the key leadership positions in law firms and medical institutions are held by men. It feels opposite somehow. Why? What if the rules could be defined equally across genders? Taking this into consideration, the solution that presents itself for us to lead together as allies.

We are stronger together

Instead of encouraging women to be more like men, we need organizations to meet women where they are and build a culture that values gender equality, inclusion, and a genuine sense of belonging for everyone.

Critical mass is achieved when women make up at least 30% of a group. This is when underrepresented groups feel a sense of belonging and do not feel alienated being the “only” in the room. One or two token women are not enough to make a difference. While 50% is lofty for many leadership teams currently hovering around 20%, 30% is much more achievable. The chances of women speaking up, being heard, and having influence maximize when this is achieved.

This is why I recommend the following ideas to organizations looking to advance gender equality and overall diversity and inclusion:

  • Clean up the culture: Map out the employee experience and make sure it is truly inclusive to all people. Stretch talent equally: Ensure you are giving challenging assignments and feedback to all people equally.
  • Establish ally networks: Have an allyship program and set the expectation that straight allies, men as allies, and other allies engage in the conversation.
  • Manage meeting behavior: Stop interruptions and idea stealing amongst underrepresented groups.
  • Promote belonging: Set the tone that all voices are heard, all people are seen, and all people belong at the organization.
  • Measure success: As with any business priority, inspect what you expect.

Want to do better but not sure where to start?

Check out my latest interviews with diversity, equity, and inclusion experts on the Diversity Pivot podcasttake our free team diversity and inclusion assessment, and check out the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.