Today’s CEOs Need to Be Gender Bilingual

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Or you risk alienating half of your customers and half of your workforce.

Global talent and customers are more gender balanced than ever before, women make up half the US workforce, drive some 80% of consumer buying decisions and represent 60% of global university graduates. Gender balance is a big business opportunity with huge economic implications. It boosts bottom line results, drives growth with new customer insights, and enhances productivity with better talent acquisition and retention. Companies with more gender balanced executive teams report higher profitability, and return on equity. Does your company profit from this 21st century shift?  If you want to tap into these broad benefits, it helps to know the facts – and to be skilled at selling the idea of gender balance to colleagues who may be less convinced.

The topic of gender balance elicits emotional reactions from both men and women. That’s why leading through this complexity requires ‘gender bilingual’ leaders. As a CEO, do you personally understand why it’s such an important issue – for your workforce, and for your customers? If not, are you willing to invest some time for you and your team to learn? Here’s the short hand – the facts, the feelings, and the framework you need to lead the change:



 CEOs need to take the time to really understand why gender balance offers your company a competitive opportunity. If you’re not personally convinced, your team won’t be, either. When it comes to gender balance, a lot of people don’t get it, don’t like it or frankly resist it. That’s why you as the CEO need to be well versed at explaining why you think gender balance in your organization is so important. CEOs routinely tell me that their teams “get the business case; they just need to understand how to change,” but our anonymous interviews with their colleagues quickly call this assumption into question. Getting your team to understand why gender balance is an absolutely necessity is your first hurdle. And it is necessary, if you want to access untapped market spaces, retain top talent and get a competitive edge over competitors. Watch how Diageo is, how the gaming industry is struggling to catch up to the reality that today’s gamers are going majority female, or why CEOs from McKinsey, Unilever and Vodafone  are determined to better balance their management teams.

KNOW YOUR NUMBERS.  How (im) balanced is your company? Do you have a recruitment, retention or promotion issue? Is it all three? Do you even know? Are men and women split by level, role and/or function? What’s the gender split of your customers, end-users, or purchasing decision-makers? What about regulators, government contacts, etc.? Too often, companies are over-focused on analyzing only their internal balance challenge. Yet the real business opportunity lies in enhanced customer and stakeholder centricity. [Can you give a “for example” here to make this point more concrete for readers?  For example… if you’re trying to sell your products to women or…] Make sure your team accurately identifies your own company’s issues before you start trying to solve them. Too many companies are wasting time and money recruiting more women when the real issue is that they aren’t retaining or promoting them. Men typically experience The Peter Principle, where they are promoted to their level of incompetence, whereas women, on the other hand, often experience The Paula Principle, where they are under-promoted across the board. This is creating situations where many multinationals are skewing female at the bottom, without ever affecting the balance at the top, to their great frustration. A note of caution: When communicating these stats to your team, avoid drowning in data. Five slides can tell the story in any company — don’t let the trees hide the forest.

LEARN THE DIFFERNECE.  Like different nationalities, men and women have well-researched differences in behaviors. Do you know the difference between actual differences and stereotypes? A little education goes a long way… When Facebook lets users self-identify as one of 52 genders, when women often loudly disagree with each other, and when male managers routinely tell me they don’t understand women at all, it’s time everyone had a little more education in gender issues. If you want to effectively engage both men and women, you will need to find the words and the messages that resonate with 100% of the talent and 100% of your customers, wherever they are situated on a masculine-feminine spectrum. Many CEOs insist that they are ‘gender blind.’ Now it’s time to become gender bilingual’ instead. That doesn’t mean that we speak different languages. It means deeply understanding different cultures and building bridges between them that include everyone. It also means replacing ‘women’s networks’ and other women-branded initiatives with more inclusive approaches that unite men and women rather than separating them.


Leaders have a huge impact on the culture of their companies. Have you discussed and designed how your own culture works and what it values and promotes? Is it unconsciously leaning to a preference for masculine styles?

SET THE TONE.  What you personally do and say as the CEO defines the culture and attitude toward genders. Your commitment to a gender-balanced organization, or your indifference, predicts your organization’s success at being truly balanced. Are you explaining and leading the company’s efforts? Who is accountable for the change? If it isn’t you and your executive team, you’re wasting your time. You need to be measuring and comparing your executive team’s success in balancing their functions as a routine part of your staff meetings. You don’t need to communicate this broadly and you don’t need a million initiatives that take a lot of time and money. You just need a new lens through which you can look at the talent and customers you already have – or want to get. In fact, it’s much better to make change before making noise. This issue should be managed like any other business issue. But beware of the easy defaults: getting one woman from a support function onto your team and then asking her to lead a gender initiative is doomed to fail. Recognize that the people you will most need to convince are today’s dominant majority. It’s better to have any efforts visibly led by one of them.

BE INCLUSIVE. Do you work hard to make sure that all voices are heard 
and integrated into strategies and solutions? Or do you let the noisy extroverts dominate the conversation — and then promote them for their assertiveness? Getting the best out of everyone on your team takes attention. Humans are deeply wired to recruit, promote and even marry people as much like them as possible. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; it breeds comfort. CEOs who want to build trust in their meritocracies know how hard they have to encourage their colleagues to discover and get to know people who represent the talent and markets of the future.

Your words matter, so use them intentionally. As the CEO, you need to model a skill with language that is inclusively neutral without falling into inauthentic political correctness. Always insist on meritocracy. So, avoid announcing a goal of “having the leadership team be 30% women by 2020,” which is still an all-too-common irritant in many companies. I often suggest that if you never say the word ‘women’ again, you will save yourself a lot of grief. Talk about ‘talent’ or ‘customers’ or ‘balance’  — words that avoid alienating today’s dominant group as you strategically pace the building of a more representative balance for tomorrow.


Context is everything. Make gender balance a lever to achieving business goals. Period.

Make it strategic. Where, when and with whom you discuss gender issues defines its relevance to your business. Include it among your top goals. Point out the strategic link to your 2020 business goals; people often don’t see the link, so you will need to explain it regularly and repeatedly. Talk about it in key management meetings. Talk about it yourself if you want key business leaders to take it seriously. Don’t delegate to HR, or think a woman is better able to address the issue. Speak to your dominant group and visibly reward managers who build balanced teams. Set ‘how to gender balance?’ as a developmental exercise in key leadership development programs. It’s a great tool for identifying smart, progressive high potentials. Groom your successor to buy into balance too, because it takes more than one CEO to anchor the change into the corporate DNA. It only ever happens by design, then dedication.

Make it personal.  Recognize that everyone on your team has both a personal and a professional life. Share your own personal life. Male CEOs are key role models in allowing the men (and women) who work for them to talk about their own personal lives. The more your talk includes selected elements of your whole life, the more your employees will have permission to bring their whole selves to work. Proactively recognize life changes and phases on your team, such as marriages, illnesses, babies, and deaths, but be gender neutral in all discussions about parenting or family. Replace references to ‘maternity’ leave with ‘parental’ leave. Don’t assume (and don’t seem to well-intentionally imply) that the major reason there is a gender imbalance in your company is because women are ‘choosing’ to have families. In most companies today, managers are readier to accept women taking parental leave than men. Until this evens out, gender balance will remain out of reach. If you want women to be leaders, encourage your men to be fathers. Be one yourself.

You will need to get all your managers to buy into the benefits of balance, and then become skilled at selling it on. More than most topics, their readiness to do either will depend on what you as the CEO say and do. Successful gender balance starts – or fails – at the top. In the 21st century, it will be do or die.

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