Five simple ways leaders can help overcome women and gender myths

Change requires an intellectual sense of what is wrong, a good solution to behaviors that need to be changed, and reasonable goals to measure. Given the ineffectiveness of so many organizations in achieving gender balance in leadership, let’s look at these three essentials, but in reverse order.

Your target could revolve around the principle of proportionality between the sexes. It states that a given level in an organization should aim to reflect the gender composition of the level immediately below.

“Usually women are represented in greater numbers at the lower levels, so applying the principle of gender proportionality would see women’s representation increase over time,” said Siri Chilazi, a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, her academic dean Iris Bohnet and Oliver Hauser, associate professor of economics at the University of Exeter, write in Harvard business review.

So if 50% of entry-level people are women, as found in a major McKinsey & Co. study of 317 North American companies, 50% of top-level managers should be women. women, not the existing 38%. But the top tier, the administrators, would aim for that 38% – the current reality for the feeder group – rather than the 50% target for the lower tier. For these companies in the sample, the C-suite is currently 21% occupied by women, but the target would be 28%, the current level of senior vice president. Not instantaneous gender equality in the C-suite, but a measured improvement that increases over time.

Next, let’s look at five relatively simple and practical ways for leaders to support women on their teams, as Judith Spitz, former chief information officer at Verizon, puts it. This may seem like putting the cart before the horse, because mindset often determines behaviors. But somehow the mindset can change based on more acceptable behaviors, like these:

  • Choose female spokespersons: When teams give you updates and introductions, make sure the group spokesperson nomination rotates so that women have as many opportunities to shine in this role as men .
  • Pay attention to perceived confidence: “When a woman at work ‘seems’ to lack confidence, be curious rather than deciding she has no leadership potential,” implores Ms Spitz in Forbes. Take the time to find out if she really lacks faith in her ideas and abilities or if she is just consciously or unconsciously trying to avoid the pitfalls that vocal women can encounter.
  • Learn how to run inclusive meetings: Because women struggle to be heard in meetings – interrupted more often than men, with men too often being recognized for their ideas – learn how to run more inclusive meetings. A starting point might be to signal that you want to hear from everyone and ask for explicit agreement from your team not to let anyone dominate the conversation, she notes.
  • Amplify and Attribute Women’s Ideas: Also look for opportunities to amplify and appropriately attribute women’s ideas, both in actual meetings and in conversations beyond those meetings.
  • Make sure there are several women in the room: It is uncomfortable for women and underestimates them if only one is in the room for a meeting, especially on crucial decisions. Two or three is better.

These are not extremely difficult behavior changes. They just require more attention and determination to support women in your organization. And such an effort helps to overcome the gender myth about meritocracy, one of five misconceptions that UK-based Canadian gender consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox discussed in Talent Quarterly.

“Men believe that talent will automatically rise to the top (that’s how they got there), while women believe that if they do a good job (and continue to be the stellar student they have always been), they will be promoted,” she added. said. But too often the good work of women goes unnoticed. These practical steps of support help women who do good work to be seen by others – so that the merit is recognized.

Another myth is that leadership requires a heavy dose of masculine traits. “In fact, most people think leaders have masculine traits because that’s most of what we’ve experienced,” she counters. “The different skills and styles that women bring to work are often not viewed as gender differences. Instead, they are generally judged as an unacceptable lack of desired masculine traits: self-confidence, hunger, 24/7 work prioritization, and personal-professional compartmentalization. »

Changing your behaviors and trying the five practical steps recommended by Ms. Spitz could fail if you don’t couple it with acknowledging the power of this myth. Giving women the opportunity to speak can only make them seem inferior to their male counterparts, as presentation styles can be significantly different, for example. Assume you are in the grip of this myth and be mindful of where it may skew your assessment of the women on your team, whether you are male or female.

Support and advance women, but she also insists that you must do the same for men. Have balanced teams that are not dominated by either gender and push your high-potential talents to grow and develop.


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Harvey Schachter is a writer from Kingston, Ontario, specializing in management issues. He and Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Leadership Emails.

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