I recently returned from a Women’s Leadership Summit where I was the one male speaker (as is often the case). At this summit, I focused on building powerful storytellers of my professional women audience.
Part of me is still processing the experience, the speakers, and the passion and commitment these women had for the companies they serve and lead within. And a key question keeps bubbling up to the surface:
What would it actually take to close the gender gap?
A few too many episodes of Mad Men have reminded me how far we’ve already come in my lifetime, and how far we have to go. Right now the playing field isn’t a level one. More specifically, the “paying field” shows about a 30% gap in how companies pay women vs men. A recent article in the Atlantic focused on how women themselves contribute to the gender gap by valuing themselves lower than men value themselves.
The “confidence gap” was the real emphasis of the article, based on a Human Resource Study at HP showing that women apply for higher positions and opportunities only if they met 100% of the posted criteria, where men apply if they met as little as 60% of listed requirements. The writers of the article believe that men are more self-assured, whereas women require a higher degree of external validation and permission. My presentation, and the presentation of virtually every speaker at this Women’s Leader Summit, addressed this point and looked to build self-assurance in the women in the room. Which totally made sense to the women leaders in attendance at the event.
But what was really remarkable to me was that senior male leaders were in attendance at this event as well, and it was clear to me that they had a vested interest in the success of this summit.
This was special enough for me to recognize that they had answered an important question that many other male-dominated companies haven’t:
Why should the company care about gender imbalance?
I’ve come to recognize that most company’s diversity efforts create the wrong story, and they do so because they focus on the wrong main character, namely the disadvantaged group. This tends to create a victim story, which actually doesn’t help anyone in the company. A better choice is to select a main character you can be confident that most of the people in the company will care about.
I say that main character is The Company itself.
Right now companies are facing more change at a faster rate, finding difficulty keeping top performers, dealing with engagement issues, and experiencing a deficit of brilliant contributions as they struggle to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. (That’s a Not-So-Happy Beginning for you story-structure buffs.)
What’s possible is a company where every contributor is fully engaged within a team that is brimming with variety, and the brilliance emerges because the variety is interwoven into the fabric of the company. The “happy ending” is a company enjoying maximum brilliance from all contributors.
Now, for the really important question:
How do we actually get there?
EPISODE ONE – THE RIGHT STORY TO INVOLVE EVERYONE
One component of the SagePresence remedy is getting everyone in the “middle” of a change story for the company. (The middle is where the action is.)
Instead of making Professional Women the main character (which starts with unfairness and works toward fairness for a subset of the human resource pool), the company change story begins with something missing, and works toward abundance for everyone. (And “everyone” is placed in the middle of the story with actions that bring diverse brilliance to the rescue.)
The inherent problem with gender inclusion stories is that they don’t motivate everyone. It’s not that men don’t care. They’re just focused on the company, and a story focused on the female subset of the company doesn’t necessarily speak to them.
So the gender balancing act is not the story, it’s part of the middle of a story of organizational change. Benefits to women may or may not be touted in this story – most loudly celebrated are benefits experienced by everybody. (Gender balancing is just part of getting there.)
EPISODE TWO – BALANCED COMMUNICATION
The other component of our remedy is the teaching, training, and coaching of a firm-wide communication skill-set that equalizes the playing field by balancing masculine and feminine dialogue.
In other words, if we learn to speak the same language, communication will lessen the gap in an “off the radar” fashion, without ever having to label the initiative as “gender equity.”
This is a great approach: Build a “yin/yang balanced” communication culture and get everyone interacting in a strong and sensitive manner. That means fostering a communication language that shifts “command & conquer” to “command & nurture.” The former is like a double-hit of “masculine” emphasis whereas the command & nurture balances masculine and feminine wisely.
Right now, the SagePresence approach to building powerful business storytellers is already bundling warmth with confidence, listening with instructing, helping with winning, collaborating with directing, and feeling with thinking.
The balanced communication style that serves men and women equally already exists, serving masculine and feminine traits of both men and women, and not viewing these traits as distinguished by gender.
One of my favorite audience comments at the Women’s Leadership Summit was, “Do you talk to men about the same things you do with women?” I do, and I am vigilant about closing diversity gaps because I’m the sort of person who could never be fully expressed nor complete without both my masculine and feminine qualities.
But in many business cases, that personal goal of mine doesn’t come up, because it’s not what my clients are focused on. I motivate by focusing on what my audience cares about, not what I care about. However, what I care about is inherently addressed by teaching balanced communication skills, and here’s what I’ve observed:
- There’s been a dramatic shift in the number of men interested in emotional intelligence.
- Behind the closed doors of coaching, and out in the open within speaking audiences, more men express curiosity and interest in learning about themselves by learning from women in the workplace.
- If the subject of gender balance never comes up at all, men embrace the skills for their own betterment and behave differently.
The bottom line is that most of leadership is communication. If you develop a balanced communication style that is strong and sensitive within the population as a whole, you can shift the emphasis from command & conquer to command & nurture, and when you do, the culture supports gender diversity in a more equal way.
Gender equity is the byproduct of balanced communication, because it’s not the imbalance between men and women that we’re addressing – it’s the imbalance inside of men, and the imbalance inside of women, that we’re balancing.
SagePresence believes that great business storytellers breathe in, and breathe out. They vision and listen, tell and ask, give and take feedback, and strive to win as they thrive to help. The command and nurture balance is a struggle within each of us, and if we foster that balance inside more and more of the individuals in organizations, we can create environments where all people can contribute their brilliance for the greater good.
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