Gender Blind to Gender Bilingual

20_first blind man blogKevin Roberts, the Chairman of advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi, probably still doesn’t know what hit him. He just got put – very publicly – on a leave of absence for being gender blind. Like most executives I work with, he was probably proud of his blindness. We’ve raised a generation of men – and many women – who pride themselves on ignoring gender totally. In their minds, like Roberts’, “the fucking debate is all over.”

The global outcry over his remarks, and his next-day dismissal from power by parent company Publicis, show that the debate is far from over. If anything, its ferocity is growing – as are the stakes. There is much for business leaders everywhere to learn from this case, as from most of the political campaigns that have been playing out over the summer. But while the lessons are inevitable, learning is optional.

Roberts is representative of a kind of leader I see more often these days: proud of all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons. He positions himself as an enlightened futurist, saying that power and hierarchy are an antiquated concept that women are too wise to submit to. Paternalism and put-down in partnership.

So we are trying to impose our antiquated shit on them, and they are going: ‘Actually guys, you’re missing the point, you don’t understand: I’m way happier than you.’ Their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy. So they say: ‘We are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men judge yourself by’. I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem. I’m just not worried about it because they are very happy, they’re very successful, and doing great work. I can’t talk about sexual discrimination because we’ve never had that problem, thank goodness.”

This kind of wilful blindness (Margaret Heffernan’s wonderful phrase ) is widespread. You have heard it all before: Leaders who say that their marketing messages to female clients and consumers must be gender appropriate because their marketing departments are dominated by women (although led by men). Those who explain the dominance of men in leadership by women’s ‘personal choices’, which of course they respect and have no wish to influence. Others who make a fuss of visibly promoting alpha females (usually without kids or spouses) to prove their gender neutrality, while tactically alienating the next generation of women from the game.

That’s where many managers still are, mostly unconsciously. Denying differences. Some, like Roberts, use the differences to rationalise the gender gap.  Without understanding all the issues that affect, influence and irritate women, it’s pretty hard to create gender balanced workplaces, or to connect with female consumers sustainably. Advertising today is so redolent with outdated gender stereotypes of both men and women that it succeeds mostly in alienating everyone. Roberts gives us an unwitting lens into why this is still true. As do the statistics: 94% percent of creative directors in advertising were men in 2010, a figure which has dropped since to … 89%.

Gender bilingualism is the only response to the ignorance and the subterfuge. Rather than ignoring gender issues, it’s increasingly important for 21st century leaders to understand them – deeply. In the world Roberts describes, “a world where we need, like we’ve never needed before, integration, collaboration, connectivity, and creativity”, gender bilingualism is increasingly a leadership criteria. He should know that the research shows that gender balance helps deliver it.

Smart companies are educating managers to recognise and embrace gender differences along a whole range of masculine and feminine career cycles, communication styles and differing attitudes to power. This goes well beyond ‘unconscious bias’ training for middle managers. They are analysing the strategic opportunities that lie in designing gender balance into all their business areas –talent management, customer connections and marketing to an updated definition of gender generally. What do they do?

  • They make leaders (not out-group representatives or heads of diversity) accountable for balance at all levels and across all functions,
  • They shift cultures to embrace gender differences rather than deny them, and
  • they re-design systems and processes (like promotion criteria, performance evaluation systems or retention systems) that prefer one gender’s traits over the other’s.

Leaders at Saatchi should recognise that having 65% women at the bottom and a dominance of men at the top is a sustainability challenge. Too often I hear companies crowing that they have a dominance of women, celebrating that they have achieved ‘balance’. This is short-sighted. It will be as hard to rebalance women-dominated workforces, like nursing, as it is proving to balance male-dominated workforces like IT. Too many women in a sector or a function makes it as hard to recruit talented men as too many men makes it to attract talented women. So before you skew one way or the other, take some time to define what gender balance should be for your organisation, customers and talent pool. The best targets are neutral ones: eg. a maximum of 60% of either gender, everywhere…

One of the toughest leadership challenges in most companies right now is helping managers convince their current dominant majorities – male or female – of the benefits of balance. Although men and women will have slightly different challenges with this exercise. Men usually need more help on WHY it matters, women on getting the edge and impatience out of their voices. We need to go beyond the #HeForShe arguments, inspiring as they are. We need today’s male leaders to become really convincing at proving that if companies balance it’s not just because it’s good for women. It’s because it’s good for men. It’s good for business. It’s good for everyone.  Maybe some of the advertising companies could help us?

This requires acknowledging and accepting reality. As one executive bravely confessed to his team recently, he feels threatened by all this talk of balance. Many men do. How do companies answer their fears? Demonstrate, visibly, that  ‘selling’ and achieving balance is something that managers are rewarded and celebrated for. And that dissing it leads to dismissal.

So thank you, Publicis. Lesson learned?

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