Why gender diversity is not enough
As a female, I am brave enough to say that any company with a singular fanatical focus on gender diversity targets is aiming the bar way too low. Gender diversity is only one small step in the right direction.
There are myriad research papers in science, psychology and organisational culture that focus on the gender diversity debate. However, as first-hand authenticity can be rare in today’s world, I want to simply share with you my observations and thinking about this topic.
I can understand why we became interested in gender diversity in the first place. The numbers don’t lie: Female representation on boards and in the C-suite is relatively low. At the same time, our society has become more attuned to this under-representation and demands to know why.
It is important for organisations to be perceived as being open, inclusive and aligned with the zeitgeist of this era, and thus, an easy and indisputable metric that can be used to determine and report success is bound to be attractive.
That is, if we have X number of men and Y number of women, this must mean we are doing a fine job. In fact, this metric may even help us look better than the competition. In my view, such narrow and superficial measures of success used in isolation can be deceptive.
There is a common tendency to judge people based on stereotypes about their characteristics such as gender, and therefore having a gender diversity program presumably suggests that the organisation embraces tolerance and flexibility.
This thinking would hinge on the presumption that women have special traits and thus create workplaces that are more nurturing, collaborative and caring, which is not necessarily the case. Furthermore, organisations that welcome a female workforce would supposedly be more accommodating when it comes to maternity leave benefits, flexible work arrangements or career breaks for mothers and provide environments that are ‘family friendly’.
But this sort of stereotyping, linking presumed traits and needs to women, is way too simplistic, traditional and old-fashioned today.
In my view, whether someone is male or female does not reflect or guarantee what crucially matters: their quality of thinking, judgement and depth of character. Of course these characteristics are much harder to fathom, measure and report. But then again, why would we need to report them at all? Wouldn’t the best indicator be simply found in the quality of an organisation’s results under all types of market conditions over time? Counting the number of males and females would appear to be more of a fashionable distraction. A famous quote comes to mind:
“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” – W C Fields
I have also seen companies try to impose gender diversity targets on their suppliers. To say the least, this is one of the most foolish pieces of thinking I have ever encountered.
It is naive for workplaces to measure a form of success by the number of females in leadership positions, as many seem to do when reporting their annual results. For one thing, female leaders aren’t infallible. I have been to management forums where women have talked about being victims of “Queen Bee Syndrome”. Ironically in such cases, female bosses are the ones who treat their female colleagues the worst. And we all know that bad bosses have ability to cause damage, even to one’s brain.
But sadly, because gender diversity is often held up as a modern and important sign of an organisation’s success, many who have been stung by a Queen Bee (or two) are often hesitant to speak up about this. For those who are suffering in silence, I want the truth to be heard.
There is also a disappointing dichotomy between the argument and the approach taken by gender diversity proponents. I question whether they really ‘walk the walk’. There is clearly a single-minded effort to appoint women to leadership positions, encourage females to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and follow career paths into so called male dominated professions and industries. Yet this effort is not mirrored with an equally ardent mission to foster more male presence in professions that are female dominated.
Why is diversity important?
What a genuine diversity movement should be about is embracing an open mindset, upholding a broader perspective, or more importantly, instilling cognitive diversity into organisational culture.
It is no coincidence that diversity of thought and perspective (cognition) is a fundamental success factor in building innovation into one’s DNA. This applies to individuals and organisations.
Diversity and innovation
Every respectable organisation today has at least some ambition or aspiration to become innovative. This is necessary given that disruption is occurring at an unprecedented pace. The dominant logic of the past cannot guarantee nor sustain success going forward.
In every industry, the definition of customer is changing. The internet provides an unusual marketplace where information is constantly being exchanged, yet money may be made through other means such as advertising. The competition is not bound to respect any rules of the past.
Given the vital link between innovation and diversity, any company that focuses on diversity only in terms of gender is taking such a narrow position on something that is critical to its future. Focusing on gender alone is an inadequate and superficial approach to why diversity matters.
What does matter
When it comes to people, the things that matter are character, credibility, gravitas, authenticity and integrity.
I studied a STEM subject and yet it has always been obvious to me that real success comes from:
learning from every favourable and adverse experience and situation,
seeking out opportunities that stimulate growth and development of skills associated with either side of the brain, beyond one’s comfort zone, and
persevering with one’s true beliefs and passion no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in. It is passion that leads me to write, including this article.
The brain is after all an amazing organ that can evolve from the clustering or reclustering of neuron connections inside. We all have a responsibility to keep learning, pursue growth and inspire improvements that heighten our own creativity and in those whom we have the privilege of leading and collaborating with.
For any executives, please note, genuine character, honesty, true magnanimity and a love for helping people (and ultimately one’s organisation) succeed are vital traits that appear to have become lost in the noise when managers and leaders are selected. Executives need to exercise their wisdom and judgement, especially when gauging who can bring value and what is good character. It is your wisdom and fine judgement, which, amongst other things, made you an executive in the first place.
I would be curious to hear how business leaders determine the calibre and quality of their staff (regardless of gender), if at all.
Maria Fok has corporate experience from ASX listed, government and global organisations and a passion for speaking and writing about how businesses may accelerate their progress, improve and innovate.
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