Efforts to increase gender equity at the senior levels of major organizations have been a dismal failure. Despite the fact that more than 95% of large companies have programs designed to promote gender equity, women’s share of management positions has not increased significantly since 1990. Indeed, as LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company concluded in their 2018 report on women in the workplace, “Progress isn’t just slow — it’s stalled.”
This stall is not because women lack talent, confidence or ambition; they have all three in as high a degree as men. The problem, rather, is that organizations are going about increasing diversity in the wrong ways. As Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev write in the Harvard Business Review, “It shouldn’t be surprising that most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity … Companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s [diversity training, hiring tests, performance ratings and grievance systems] — which often makes things worse, not better.”
Organizations need a multipronged approach to gender equity. The following five-part program provides an effective way to finally move the needle.
A significant majority of male managers do not believe women face more significant obstacles to career advancement than men. But women need the support of precisely these men if they are to be assured of fair and equal access to career opportunities, resources and rewards. Therefore, organizations must make certain that all managers fully appreciate the extent and discriminatory consequences of gender bias.
2. Reducing Subjectivity
Gender equity will only happen if an organization’s career-affecting decisions are made in a fair and unbiased manner — which requires eliminating as much subjectivity as possible from those decisions. Organizations can take three steps to accomplish this goal: model “blind-auditions,” force “slow thinking” and reduce discretion. Let’s briefly look at each of these techniques.
When major sympathy orchestras began conducting auditions from behind a screen, the proportion of women orchestra members increased from about 10% in the 1970s to almost 50% today. Organizations can use the concept of blind auditions to ensure that career-affecting decisions are made without being infected by gender bias.
For example, employers can remove gender identification from résumés and written materials that are the sole basis of decisions about assignments, compensation and promotion. In addition, by limiting comments in performance evaluations to objective job-related accomplishments, they can reduce the expression of “gut” or subjective judgments, which are always highly subject to bias.
Most of the time, we think in a manner that psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “fast” — automatic, reflexive and effortless. As Kahneman points out in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” however, when we think fast, we are prone to systematic errors, because our decisions are unconsciously affected by our likes and dislikes, comfort and discomfort, and familiarity and unfamiliarity.
When managers make career-affecting decisions “fast,” they inevitably favor people who are like them, with whom they share common interests and who they think “look right” for the job. In other words, when male managers think fast, they often favor men over women.
Organizations should, therefore, make sure that career-affecting decisions are made by thinking “slow” — that is, carefully, deliberatively and logically. This type of decision-making can be difficult, as Kahneman writes, because the voice of our rational, reflective self is “much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition.” By controlling the circumstances under which career-affecting decisions are made, however, organizations can encourage slow thinking.
For example, managers are likely to make slow decisions when they know that their justifications for these decisions and their long-term consequences — the gender composition of their team; the compensation of the women and men who work for them; and the training, mentoring and assignments women and men receive — will be evaluated by a third party.
Discretion provides an opportunity for the expression of subjective preference, which is easily infected by gender biases. Thus, reducing the discretion involved in career-affecting decisions can reduce the influence of gender bias, as Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald write in their book “Blindspot.”
For instance, organizations can:
- Require project teams to have an equal number of women and men.
- Ensure that employees at each stage of their careers are assigned to, complete and are evaluated on the same types of projects.
- Mandate that at least one women be among the candidates considered when selecting someone to fill a career-enhancing role (a variation of the NFL’s Rooney Rule).
Workplaces structured in accordance with masculine norms, values and expectations — in other words, workplaces at virtually all major organizations — typically operate as though work and home were separate, nonintersecting life spheres. Men often thrive in such workplaces (assuming they have a nonworking wife to deal with all things concerning home), but women often find it difficult to do so. Because of the many more domestic responsibilities they still typically have, in these environments, women will likely not advance in their careers as far or as quickly as men. Gender equity won’t happen unless workplaces provide both men and women with flexible working schedules and locations (to the extent possible to maintain quality and efficiency).
4. Small Wins
We will not achieve gender equity overnight. It will depend on a series of incremental steps designed to solve interconnected but relatively small problems. Organizations, therefore, should aim for what sociologist Shelley J. Correll calls small wins: To make workplaces more equitable, the most effective approach is to take “concrete, implementable actions that are of moderate importance and produce visible results.” When an organization achieves a small win, “it often creates new allies and makes visible the next target of change.”
The last piece of this program involves enlisting a substantial number of senior men in the gender equity effort. There are men at or near the top of virtually all organizations who committed to doing what it takes to advance their business’ long-term interests. The trick is to convince them that gender equity is what it takes and, thus, to turn them from open-minded onlookers into active allies. Women need to identify these men, bond with them and work with them to make their workplaces better for both women and men.
Putting It Together
Progress toward real gender equity is possible if organizations adopt this five-part program. It will only happen, however, if they can create an effective alliance between a committed coalition of women and active male allies. With such an alliance, gender equity can become a reality.