Does anyone really want to talk about gender issues in the workplace? Generally speaking, the answer is no. Most of us have sat through the obligatory presentations at work—you know, the ones where the HR manager stands in front of the room, dutifully reading the text from a few canned slides. After sharing platitudes about their employer’s commitment to a respectful workplace, they then state some rules for conduct that are (or should be) obvious to everyone.
Typically, the list of “must not do” items includes inappropriate touching, lewd or demeaning comments, sexually explicit communications, and sexually suggestive gestures. Some companies even have policies that forbid co-workers from dating.
Often when these rules are being articulated, there’s a palpable awkwardness in the room. Women may feel that they’re being belittled because the presentation reinforces stereotypes of female victimhood; men may feel that they’re being unfairly targeted because it reinforces stereotypes of male aggression. Both may find the presentation so basic as to be insulting. At best, everyone will accept that this kind of training is necessary because some people are clueless and the company must state the obvious to cover its legal liabilities.
Now, I am not criticizing companies for doing this training. I get it—it is necessary. But is it actually improving gender issues in the workplace?
It would seem not. For one thing, researchers at the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto recently found that anti-sexual harassment training often fails to “address the power dynamics and discrimination that cause sexual harassment in the first place.” Worse still, one study found that such training “reinforced traditional and paternalistic gender stereotypes, because it associated men and women with traditional gender roles.” (Remember that palpable awkwardness?)
What these and other studies show is that spelling out rules of behaviour is not what strengthens the position of women in the workplace. Rather, the solution lies in recognizing women’s strengths, particularly by promoting them to senior roles. Indeed, another study cited by Rotman’s researchers showed that “anti-sexual harassment training is more effective when there is a higher representation of women managers, and power is more equally distributed amongst men and women.”
This shift in workplace culture from a rules-based to a strengths-based approach will not only make women feel more welcome and valued in the workplace—it will also create a business advantage. More on that later.
Out with the old, in with the new
The reality is that old, outdated corporate cultures are broken. Put simply: Our current hierarchical, command-and-control workplace model is based on ancient military structures (the first bureaucracies), where commanders were noblemen and soldiers were peasants. Egalitarian, open, and collaborative leadership would have struck the overlords of these fiefdoms as absurd.
Businesses have evolved from this model, but less than you might think. In fact, whenever there’s a crisis, most businesses have a command-and-control “reflex.” This is particularly troubling because, in my experience, a lot of businesses are continually in crisis mode. And while the old command-and-control model worked relatively well for ancient warfare, it does not work in the 21st-century economy—an economy characterized by complexity, speed, technology, and stakeholder activism.
In fact, the skills required today are not only vastly different from those needed in the ancient military structures, they’re also different from those needed just five years ago. And while this acceleration of change is being driven by emerging technology, it might surprise you to learn that there’s an increasing demand not only for software engineers but also for people experts.
Leading in the 21st century
According to the World Economic Forum, the leaders of tomorrow will need to excel at multi-factorial thinking, have high emotional intelligence (EQ), and be adept at nurturing collaboration. They will need to be service-oriented and engage in creative problem-solving. Guess which gender tends to excel in all these qualities? Women.
This is not to say that men don’t possess these qualities. Many men do. But research shows that women tend to be better collaborators. Did you know, for example, that even at just one year old, girls spend considerably more time making eye contact than boys?
Does this mean that women will bring higher EQ to the boardroom? It depends. While a widely shared 2016 study showed that women typically outperformed men on EQ measures, the conversation has since shifted. Rather than having higher EQ, more recent studies show that women excel in different kinds of EQ than their male counterparts.
There is consensus, however, when it comes to the business benefits of having more women in the boardroom. Studies show that when there is sufficient representation of women on corporate boards, notable improvements occur, including better financial performance and more innovative problem-solving. The same can be said for executive teams—a 2018 study found that companies who scored in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to achieve above-average profitability. In addition to stronger financial performance, the presence of women in senior executive positions has also been correlated to significant reputational and brand advantages.”
Parity and business success
To correct the power imbalance at work, we need to fully recognize and appreciate the advantages of gender differences and adjust our organizational cultures accordingly. Progressive businesses that act on the needs of the 21st-century economy will naturally see an increase in equality and a reduction in sexist behaviour. Companies that do not see the necessity of “feminine” leadership qualities will be left behind.
Paul Krismer is the chief happiness officer and founder of The Happiness Experts Company, based in Victoria, and the best-selling author of "Whole Person Happiness: How to Be Well in Body, Mind and Spirit". He is a certified executive coach with over 20 years’ experience as an executive leader of large teams.
Originally published in the March/April 2020 edition of CPABC in Focus.