Becoming a Great Leader on Gender Issues


“First, gender equality is a moral issue.” Almost as soon as the CEO opened his mouth, I knew he wasn’t convinced – or convincing. He was a bit slumped in his chair. He knew the statistics that the audience had just been presented were nowhere near ‘equality’, which was hardly a good way to prove the ‘morality’ of the company he was leading. If leaders are arguing equality and morality you know it’s because they probably haven’t done their research on the very real business benefits of gender balance. It’s the economy, stupid, would be a good summary for gender too.

It usually takes less than a minute to see if a CEO is serious (and skilled) when speaking about gender issues.  The combination of words chosen and body language gives it away. Skilled leaders are very practiced in what they say – and what they don’t. Unless they are in politics, they anchor their business case in business rather than in ethics. They make it as much like other business issues as they can. Same language, same arguments. Because they have learned that is more effective with the audience they need to convince: their male majorities.

Check out Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, making a simple, relaxed case for something he finds obvious. He wants to double his revenues over the next five years, and he knows he needs gender balance to achieve it.

In contrast, the most rudimentary glance at Trump’s announcement of a ‘women in STEM’ initiative showcases disinterest. Surrounded by women whose names he needs to read off a list, the bill is an empty promise to ‘encourage’ girls to study STEM . No regulation, no measurements, and likely no result. Given his respect for science, his encouraging girls to go that route is dubious. This is pinkwashing at its worse, when the reality is the infamous picture of a roomful of men signing away abortion rights .

But the reality is that Trump is carefully targeting – and playing to – a regressive and reactionary base. Leaders can use gender issues for progress, but too many on the global scene today are using it to move their countries backward on key issues. Trump is repeatedly being photographed signing away women’s rights surrounded by a sea of men.

Many corporate leaders are reacting by doubling down on gender balance. The best leaders don’t just argue that gender balance is good for business. They also acknowledge that it is hard, and it takes “time, hard work and dedication.” They educate other leaders in how to go about it and acknowledge how much they themselves have learned on the journey. In this speech excerpt, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes time to describe the five years he put in attracting and pulling women into politics to get his bench ready for Canada’s first gender balanced parliament ‘because it’s 2015’. He knows that many leaders struggle with getting women into power, and shared their predicament. He also understands why women say no, and has learned to turn those refusals into yes. He tells them how it’s done. We need much more of this – especially from male leaders.

The famous writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says that it is time “to stop giving men cookies for doing what they should do.” I would counter that we are in urgent need of cookies. We need to continue the momentum of companies focused on getting men skilled at leading across genders . Much of the messaging around International Women’s Day is that women must help women. In companies, the real trick is getting everyone to push for balance. To do this, you need male role models who can show the way. In an environment where sexism is newly permissible, leaders who push – effectively – for balance are more crucial than ever. We need to help and support them in any way we can. Showcasing what good leadership looks and sounds like is more necessary than ever.

Adichie is right that we shouldn’t reward men for simply parading as ‘champions’ and ‘supporters’ of ‘women.’ She describes having “once heard an American politician, in his bid to show his support for women, speak of how women should be “revered” and “championed” – a sentiment that is all too common… women don’t need to be championed and revered; they just need to be treated as equal human beings.”

Leaders and companies should be measured and rewarded for results, not reverence. Numbers and transparency are the key tool to create balance – and some companies still don’t even track their own gender data. Michael Hobbs, a longtime social change agent, writes “If you look at the two social issues where companies have genuinely improved in the last 30 years—workplace accidents and corruption—it’s because they started monitoring their own performance, gave bonuses to managers who improved and fired managers who didn’t.

That is the tipping point in companies too.

  • Reward managers who build balance teams, fire those who don’t.
  • Track and compare the gender statistics of all senior executives’ teams.
  • Be transparent on gender statistics and goals.

Ask your colleagues – male and female. When you talk about the need for more gender balance, does anyone believe you? If not, you’re making it worse.

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