Gender Initiatives Are Culture Change Initiatives

“I wish honestly that I could rewind time and go back and put that women’s equality issue into the culture from the beginning,” says Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. Benioff’s business is growing hyper fast, and he knows he needs both halves of the population to fuel that growth. But Benioff, and anyone else who has tried to gender balance large organizations, also knows that one of the key obstacles to change is the culture created by the group currently in power.

Companies are human systems with patterns, habits and mindsets that have evolved over time. In most organizations, change and transformation are at the top of the strategic agenda, and culture is considered a top priority. And yet established systems, processes, and mindsets are notoriously hard to shift.

On gender, the shift is slow and only partially understood. One gender’s rules dominate the game in most companies, because they created it in their image over the past 10 or 150 years. The more corporate cultures are male dominated and male defined, the more these companies are hemorrhaging female talent. The oft-criticized tech sector is just a slightly more extreme version of what most large companies still face, the existence of “a persistent, male-oriented nerd culture that actively drives women out of the field.”

Part of the reason change has been slow is that so many companies misunderstand the reality of the issue: it ain’t the women who need to change.

It’s the cultures that need to change.

Young companies may have an advantage here, as Benioff’s comment emphasizes: it’s a lot easier to fix a culture early, before it is well established and entrenched.

That’s what one young, 40-person tech start-up called VOTO Mobile is doing. Co-founder Louis Dorval actively aimed, early on, to gender balance the company he and two other “over-educated, privileged white guys from Canada,” created in 2012. He is gender-balancing by design, almost from the start. Why? “It’s for the performance of the organisation I’m creating.”

What is so unusual about their approach, and what others could learn from their innovations, is how conscious they are that the culture of tech companies is not adapted to women. And that if they want to gender balance the team, they need to adapt their culture – from the very first moment of recruitment, all the way through retention issues and promotion criteria.

Dorval knew that vocabulary was key, right from the first job ad. He read the research that men and women respond differently to certain words. He’s right. The use of certain words unconsciously flags cultures that are more masculine normed.

Dorval is also very conscious that the company has a lot to learn about women, and that managing them will require cultural adaptations. This excerpt from the first email sent to their prospective female hires is a good example:

“As I’ve discussed with a few of you already, there is a lack of diversity amongst the leadership team. We [the founders][/the] are all similar in age and race (read white men). Why does this matter? This unconscious choice may end up having consequences that affect your day-to-day experience at VOTO (think an all-male college dorm room). But do not fear, we are keen on improving this situation and working towards a more inclusive company culture as we expand and move forward…”

“The door is wide open to suggestions for change. All is on the table: company culture, the words we use, the actions we take, company processes, company tools, company norms, budgets, etc. Our goal: within the next 3 months, you will feel so at home that you will be recommending to your friends to join VOTO.

So let me thank you in advance for your understanding and help in this area.”

The company now proudly boasts of having a “near even gender split,” and most of my client companies could benefit from copy-pasting this leader-led, “all is on the table” approach to change.

And yet this is the opposite of what I see in most companies, where leaders are still working hard to get women to adapt to their existing corporate culture.

The manager of a large American tech company is a typical example – he confessed to me recently that he was having a really hard time finding women “who fit the culture.”

This is backwards. Established companies should instead be focusing on changing their culture to fit women. Three simple steps could help:

Have the CEO lead the charge (not women, not HR, not the head of diversity).
Align senior leaders on the need for change (trust me, they aren’t) and how to implement it (again, I guarantee they don’t already know how).
Hold them accountable for progress (just as with any other business target).

These may look familiar, given that they likely resemble what you are doing with every other change initiative you are facing. But that’s the key.

Unfortunately, this is a million miles away from the current practice, evident in the results of a recent McKinsey/LeanIn report. The study underlines that most executives don’t think gender balance is a priority in their organizations. Sadly, they’re right: until leaders convince everyone that gender balance is a business issue, it won’t happen. And the more years they talk about it without making progress, the less credible they become.

Will companies spend another generation trying to get women (now 60% of college graduates worldwide) to adapt to male-dominated corporate cultures — or will they consider that global realities now make it smart and strategic for companies to adapt to today’s talent?

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