Are men and women different? While almost every executive I have ever met, anywhere in the world, says yes, most diversity policies are designed as if the answer were no.
Last week, the Global Head of Diversity of a leading professional services firm told me that she “didn’t want to be treated differently.” That, I answered, is why most professional services firms are still hovering well below the 20% female partner level. As long as men and women are treated exactly the same by organizations, most women will continue to be shut out of senior roles.
And yet for the past 30 years, managers have been taught to do just this: treat men and women exactly the same. That is considered the progressive thing to do. Any suggestion of difference was, and often still is, labelled a bias or a stereotype, especially by many women, eager to demonstrate that they are one of the guys, or the in-group.
The business world’s denial of differences hurts women, and excludes them in a myriad of ways – consciously and unconsciously – from leadership. Because differences are not recognized, women are too often simply judged as “not fitting” the dominant group’s systems, styles and patterns. There were good reasons for pushing “sameness” in the past, and the laws of many countries underlie today’s companies’ insistence on similar treatment – being treated the same is, after all, better than being treated worse. But today, those are not our only options. It’s time for companies to adapt to women – or watch them walk out the door to competitors who will. In all the companies I work with, lack of recognition of basic differences like career cycles, communication styles, or attitudes to power is enough to eliminate one gender and prefer the other.
When the roles are flipped – when females form the dominant group – ignorance about differences also hurts males. This is the argument of Michael Thompson, one of America’s leading experts on the psychology of boys and the author of Raising Cain. In a speech last week at the Chautauqua Institution, he argued that because eight out of nine U.S. teachers today are women, schools today judge boys learning styles subpar because they deviate from the norm set by girls and women. Instead of adapting to boys’ differences (“more physical energy, developmentally less mature, use language differently,” as he put it), we insist that both genders behave the same, and medicate our sons to calm them down. According to Thompson, 11% of American boys are diagnosed as having ADHD and are on drugs for it. That’s 85% of the global ADHD drug consumption. And since the late 1990s, boys have been more likely to drop out of school than girls. Imbalances like these help account for the growing gender imbalance in higher education (60% of university graduates will soon be women in the U.S.).
We are creating a paradoxical situation: An educational system that produces a majority of female graduates (the majority of BAs, MAs and PhDs in the U.S. are now women), and feeds them into an economic system that has not yet adapted and keeps recognizing and promoting male styles as superior.
It’s not that women in business or boys in school need “special treatment.” Rather, every organization aims to maintain a high-performance meritocracy. But the simplest, most basic measure of this, that both genders succeed equally, remains an elusive one. What we see instead are unconsciously self-preferential systems being created, their leaders convinced that gender shouldn’t matter.
By the way, I’m not arguing that gender differences are innate. Innateness doesn’t matter for the purposes of this discussion. After all, businesses don’t debate whether the differences between Chinese and American employees are innate. They know that to work with and for the Chinese requires learning their language and culture. Working across genders is similar. Companies and managers, as well as teachers and educators, will need to learn the real and imagined differences between genders – and adapt to them if they want to work with and for both men and women. They urgently need to become “gender bilingual” if they want to tap into today’s talent pool.
In education, this does not mean creating boys-only schools, which doesn’t solve the challenge of learning to learn together. For business, it does not mean continuing women-only networks and coaching and programs, which doesn’t solve the challenge of learning to work effectively together. Nor does it mean rolling out the kind of training that insists we are all the same, and the only obstacle is bias. (Bias is a problem, of course, but it’s far from the only one.)
It does mean getting leaders to prioritize gender balance and be familiar with the kind of cultures and systems that enable it – and those that eliminate it.
- Strong leadership: Clear leadership from the highest levels that gender balance is a strategic priority for the organization.
- Committed leaders: Aligned senior teams that are both convinced that change needs to happen, and equipped to lead it.
- Skilled and accountable managers: Managers who are skilled at managing across gender differences – both as talent and customers – and focus on it as an organizational priority.
Denying the existence of differences between men and women (or boys and girls) was a useful phase we had to go through. It got us to here. Now that the reality of gender has changed, so should our approach. Managers – both male and female – should embrace the differences and get everyone to succeed.