We need to talk about gender inequality

While diversity of thought gains momentum, women lose out

Diversity is not only about demographics. Invisible differences, like in sexual orientation, social mobility and personality traits, create inequality too. Many organizations are therefore broadening their narrative around diversity. Rightly so. But while focusing on all different underrepresented groups, it appears they forget about the largest one – women.

Diversity is an increasingly important topic for companies. Many have policies in place to increase the representation of so-called underrepresented groups, including diversity training that focus on bias. These lead to a growing awareness that diversity is not only about demographics like gender and ethnicity, but about invisible differences as well.

LGBTQ+-people feel excluded of work cultures where it’s perfectly normal to ask a new hirer if he has a girlfriend or to assume everybody has a heterosexual partner to take to Christmas parties. People on the autism spectrum are denying their needs and social preferences in order to be able to work in open-plan offices, where having lunch with your colleagues in a noisy canteen is being seen as important. People in wheelchairs – do you even see them in your workplace?
Becoming aware of your bias means becoming aware of the biggest obstacle of diversity, which is the age-old norm in society for what success looks like: a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class male. Anyone who doesn’t possess these characteristics has a harder time ‘fitting in’, let alone thriving. That’s why you see more and more companies shifting the narrative on diversity to a broader one, committing to an inclusive culture where ‘everyone can be themselves’.

So far so good. The power of diversity is diversity of thought: the synergy of different forms of thinking, of different perspectives being brought to the table and a variety of skills to work with. Especially in these fast changing times when big crises are looming, companies can benefit from diversity because it makes for more innovative, creative and simply higher performing teams.
But in focusing on a broader definition of diversity, many organizations forget the group where it all started with: women. Research shows that when boards focus on diversity of thought, women lose out. The efforts that were once oriented towards them, now become centered on technical attributes like experience and skills. And you only have to look at the numbers to see that this doesn’t really improve gender diversity.

Female representation rising at a snail’s pace

The Female Board Index reported that per August 31st 2020, women made up almost a third (29.5%) of all supervisory boards of Dutch listed companies for the first time. Of management boards they made up 12.4%, which makes a weighted average of 24.2% female directors. This is higher than Dutch listed companies have ever shown before. Below the stock exchange, though, there continue to be large numbers of companies that have not responded to the call for greater board diversity.

Commissioned by the Dutch government, the Monitoring Committee Women At The Top has been monitoring progress towards the statutory gender diversity target for the representation of women and men in the top of large Dutch companies. The statutory gender diversity target came into force on January 1st 2013 and determined that large companies should strive for a balanced distribution of seats between women and men on their boards. This distribution meant that at least 30% of the seats on both the management and the supervisory boards were held by women and at least 30% of the seats were held by men. The statutory target expired on January 1st 2020.

Between 2013 and 2020, the Committee concludes in its latest report, the representation of women in the top of large Dutch companies has been rising at a snail’s pace. Therefore, the Dutch Second Chamber has recently approved a bill for the introduction of mandatory gender diversity quota for supervisory boards of Dutch listed companies, and targets for large non-listed companies.

To tackle gender inequality is to acknowledge it exists

The question rising here, is not so much if quota and targets are helpful. The fact that such interventions are necessary, may be the very reason they won’t be successful. You can have 33% women in your supervisory board and still have a workplace that marginalizes women. The solution to gender inequality doesn’t lie in simply hiring more women, but in acknowledging the very existence of it.
And that’s where many companies go wrong when they broaden the narrative and approach diversity as a large pile of differences. They may think all forms of diversity are the same and require the same approach. But gender identity is like the umbrella for all differences – whether you’re black or white or abled or disabled, you’re always either male or female. Or non-binary, but that too is a gender identity. And that makes all the difference.

When a black woman makes a statement in a meeting, research shows, she’s less likely to be heard than when a black man makes a statement. Disabled women are less likely to be in a paid job than men with disabilities. There’s no denying that men who don’t fit the stereotype face obstacles as well, but it’s important to acknowledge that women in general are treated differently than men. They are treated as less competent, are being denied opportunities to advance and have to struggle with long-hours cultures that conflict with caring responsibilities – the majority of which still fall on women. As Michelle P. King writes in her insightful book The Fix, “We live in a society that values men and masculinity more than women and femininity. And when it comes to power and leadership, men are the standard for what good looks like.”

Fix the system – and men will benefit too

Gender diversity requires more than having a policy in place that is focused on diversity of thought. It requires leaders who recognize gender inequality to begin with, and start putting the right policies in place to tackle it. These should not be focused on women – it’s not the women who need to be ‘fixed’. It’s the system. It’s all the performance standards, policies, procedures, structures and norms that are built with an age-old ideal in mind.

The good part is that if you do that, you’re not only benefitting women and all the underrepresented groups that fall under their umbrella, but men too.

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