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Want To See More Women In Senior Leadership? Fix Your Company

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The focus needs to shift away from women's supposed need for more confidence to the gendered obstacles in the way of their advancement. Seven steps to fixing systemic gender inequality.

Gender inequality in corporate leadership is an all too obvious reality. Women make up only about a quarter of C-suite members at Fortune 500 companies and they earn just 77 percent of what their male counterparts do. Even more telling, the proportion of women who are CEOs, CFOs, and one of the next three highest paid officers at all publicly held companies is only about 12 percent.[3]

While the reality of gender inequality in corporate leadership is beyond dispute, there is significant disagreement about why this is the case. For example, a survey of faculty, staff, and alumni at Stanford University’s Byers Center for Biodesign found that men overwhelmingly believe that gender disparity in leadership is because women make different career and lifestyle choices than men do. Women, on the other hand, believe this disparity is the result of persistent, discriminatory stereotypes and exclusion from important communication and support networks. This gulf between women’s and men’s beliefs about the reasons for gender inequality is hardly surprising. After all, 80 percent of men believe their workplace “empowers women to reach their full potential,” while only 36 percent of women agree. Likewise, 84 percent of men believe their organization’s promotional criteria are the same for both women and men, but only 35 percent of women agree.

As these findings confirm, most men believe their workplaces are meritocracies, and, therefore, dismiss any suggestion that gender inequality in leadership is due to career advancement obstacles that women—but not men— face. As a result, these men (and some women) believe that the gender inequality in leadership is due to something about the women themselves. Either women are making different personal choices than men—as the men in the Stanford survey believe—or they don’t have the “right” attitudes needed to advance them to senior leadership. Although organizations can do little about women’s lifestyle choices, many business leaders believe they can “help” women develop the attitudes that will assist them rise into the leadership ranks. As a result, in recent years, there has been a proliferation of programs designed to “fix the women”—to teach them how to be more confident, more assertive, and better able to lead. Indeed, as Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad put it in Confidence Culture and the Remaking of Feminism, an increasing number of companies are seeking to increase leadership diversity by training women to be more confident; indeed, such training is being provided as “an individual and personal matter, unconnected to structural inequalities or cultural forces.” There is, thus, an increasingly common assumption that by teaching women to be more confident and courageous and to have better control of their work and home lives, companies can solve gender inequality in their senior leadership.

The Effort to “Fix Women” Is Counterproductive

While everyone—men as well as women—can benefit from more confidence, control, and courage, it borders on the ridiculous to assume that those qualities—even in abundance—are sufficient to enable women to put an end to gender inequality in senior leadership. In the first place, it is well established that on average there is no difference in women’s and men’s task competence, career commitment, leadership ability, and confidence. But second, taking a “fix” the women view of how to end gender inequality completely ignores the structural discrimination inherent in companies’ personnel management practices. To end gender inequality, companies need to change their workplace systems and structures so that they do not make it harder for women than men to advance into senior leadership.

Ending Systemic Gender Inequality

In our new book, Beyond Bias:  The PATH to End Gender Inequality at Work, we identify seven ways companies can change the discriminatory operation of their personnel decision-making process.

1. “Screen” out social identity.

Perhaps the simplest change that companies can make is to “screen” personnel decision-makers from information that they should not consider in making such decisions. For example, by removing all information about the social identities—gender, race, ethnicity, parental status, age, sexual orientation, and so on—of employees being considered for a particular position, stereotypes and biases about those characteristics cannot influence the final decision.

2. Specify objective evaluation criteria.

When personnel decisions must be justified in terms of clear, specific, and objective criteria, those decisions are highly resistant to irrelevant and discriminatory factors. In contrast, when decision-makers have only vague, ambiguous, or highly subjective criteria on which to base their personnel decisions, their (unconscious) stereotypes and biases are likely to lead them to evaluate similar performances differently depending on whether the performers are men or women.

3. Nudge slow thinking.

When decision-makers use what Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “slow thinking,” they are unlikely to be influenced by unconscious stereotypes and biases. This is because slow thinking involves careful, deliberative, and objective consideration of relevant information. Fast thinking, in contrast, is automatic, effortless, and done without conscious awareness. We think fast most of the time, and normally it serves us quite well. The problem with fast thinking, however, is that when we use it to evaluate performance or to make personnel decisions, the result is likely to be systematically biased, reflecting our subjective likes and dislikes, approval and disapproval, and comfort or discomfort with the people under consideration. Fast thinking is the enemy of fair and objective personnel decisions. To assure personnel decisions are made using slow thinking, organizations can require that such decisions be made collaboratively by two or more people, on an explicitly comparative basis, or in writing with the justification for the decision reviewed by a third party.

4. Limit discretion.

By eliminating discretion in areas that might be influenced by unconscious stereotypes and bias, personnel decisions can be made substantially more gender neutral. For example, companies could stipulate that

  • all teams must be composed of, say, at least 30 percent women,
  • all employees at specified career stages must receive similar types of projects and responsibilities, and
  • all candidate pools for promotion must consist of, say, at least, 50    percent women.

5. Separate personnel evaluations from personnel decisions.

Organizations can also reduce the influence of discriminatory factors by separating personnel evaluations from personnel decisions. At Google, for example, interviewing is done by diverse teams of employees drawn from across the company. These teams prepare detailed written reports of the candidates’ qualifications. Google’s hiring committee then uses these reports to make the final hiring decisions. In this way, interviewers’ subjective, possibly biased reactions to  candidates—whether because of personal affinity, shared background, stereotypes, or bias—cannot influence the ultimate hiring decisions.

6. Use diverse teams of decision-makers.

Organizations can significantly limit the influence of unconscious stereotypes and biases on personnel decisions by ensuring that the teams making the decision have a balance of men and women.

7. Monitor decision-making patterns.

When decision-makers know the justifications of their decisions will be reviewed, those decisions are far more likely to made in thoughtful, evidence-based ways that are free of discriminatory influences.

These seven structural constraints on personnel decision-making are designed to prevent the consideration of factors that should not be considered in making those decisions and increase the likelihood that these decisions will be made on the basis of factors that should be considered. In other words, by changing the manner in which personnel decisions are made, many of the gendered obstacles to women’s advancement can be removed. This does not require radical workplace changes. But it does require changes that will result in changed outcomes; changes, for example, in staffing patterns, responsibility assignments, and advancement opportunities. By using one or more of these methodologies for personnel decision-making, companies should be able to end much of the systemic disadvantage women face and give them a fair and equal opportunity to advance into senior leadership.


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