Future Proof: Sexist pigs?

Imagine spending 10 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to solve a problem only to make it worse, not better. That sounds a bit like marriage doesn’t it? Just kidding! (I hope my wife doesn’t read my blog.) I am talking about the futile attempts of many Australian companies to recruit women into senior roles in business.

I have been working with a client recently trying to address this very issue, and as part of my preparation I did some research to find examples of best practice.

We ended up focusing on 23 global companies which had won awards in the last few years for their women’s initiatives.

What we found shocked me so much that I feel compelled to share it with you.

Of the 23 companies we studied we were only able to find evidence that six of them had made any substantial improvements in the number of women they had in senior roles. And none were Australian.

One European arms of a Big Four accounting firm even went as far to claim credit for 26% of their graduate intake being women. Some further search indicated that 50% of the available talent pool was female. Hardly an achievement worthy of commendation.

And here is the most disturbing part. The six who did were only able to do it with arbitrary quotas and targets. It turns out because we (and I am including women themselves in ‘we’) have such deep biases that our prejudice is mostly unconscious.

How is it that in 2009 we need to be “forced” to promote women into positions they deserve as much as the men with whom they compete for them?

I need to confess here that I feel like the pot calling the kettle black. In the middle of this research I hosted a lunch for 12 highly successful young entrepreneurs.

Only when we all arrived for lunch did it become evident that I had invited 10 men and one women. And it took the one woman to point that out to me.

Even as I was knee deep in this stuff, my unconscious biases were so strong I failed to take appropriate action.

Consider some of the following things that came out of the research:

* As a general rule senior managers overestimate their “open mindedness” and ability to make non-sexist judgments. It turns out that we are half as open minded and inclusive in their behaviour as they think they are.

* Women are just as capable of discriminating against other women as men are. Some researchers even suggest they are trying to protect their positions as the “only” woman on the board.

* Even when women’s networking groups exist, they are often excluded from the informal networks that count. That is, the networks where the most important decisions get made.

And what makes this most shocking is that ALL of the credible research shows that companies with greater diversity (namely women) in senior roles outperform the market by as much as 33%.

In other words, it is good for business but we don’t change?

Here are some insights from the six that have had progress which you may find interesting:

* Quotas work. As “insulting” as the need for a quota may be for many women, to get results we must forcefully break the biases which keep the status quo entrenched. Insisting that at least one female candidate be in the final three for each appointment and promotion to a senior position.

* Senior leaders are required to find at least 1 female that they will personally mentor and make it their personal responsibility to ensure they progress to the higher ranks.

* Facilitating much more intimate networks to form between aspiring women and senior managers (especially men) is far more powerful than formal women’s networks.

* Unleashing “change agents” with the power to enforce the diversity agenda, who actively seek out insight from women in the business and actively coach them to get on development programs in the like is a powerful initiative.

* Making it customer focused and NOT diversity focused. Just using the word ‘diversity’ makes people’s eyes glaze over, but when it was framed as enticing more women customers and improving the retention of female clients, the changes were more openly embraced and sustained.

I know I am a little late to weigh in on this issue, and I know I am a man, but when I learned that Australia is regressing, I felt the need to speak up!

I am proud to say since starting the starting this research, I have appointed a female board member and six of my seven new employees are women.

If you are in a position of power in your organisation what are you are doing when it comes to this issue? Do you believe it is a problem?

Originally posted August 28,2009 on the Sydney Morning Herald

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  • Ridwan

    Experts have talked about this before. How many times have you read about the importance of ‘adding value’ for your audience? How many times have you read about ‘building trust’ with your readers/prospects?
    Many, many times. You know it well. Every marketing guru has spoken about this topic. I’m sick of hearing it. But it STILL bears repeating.

  • Maarten Vanneste

    The next thing I expect to happen in the coming years is scientific proof of the fact that women generally speaking don't want to be in leadership positions. That it is their natural, biological and neurological condition and that it may take a few hundred generations to change. Scientific evidence is probably available today (2010), but it is too early to change that paradigm.

  • Dr. Angie (Nearly)

    Let's face it, women and young women ages 0-99 are undervalued all over the world in almost every situation. Data indicate that in third world countries that if you want to make societal improvements you have to support women. You have to address fundamental issues and make female education and health care a priority. If you are raised from day one to be a second class citizen, then it is almost impossible to completely abandon that mindset. Companies that are serious about promoting women, will also support girls' education, locally and globally. Starting at the top with executive leadership initiatives won't do it. Without a solid foundation, the "building" will soon crumble.

  • Bonnie

    Dr Angie has some pertinent points.

    I believe the Parents in our world need to instill confidence that our girls can be what ever they want to be. This is the way I was brought up, and I have achieved almost everything I set out to do. The sky is the limit, not our gender.

    Peter's research was interesting and I would like more details on how "companies with greater diversity (namely women) in senior roles outperform the market by as much as 33%".

    Peter, shall I contact you for this?

  • ajnabee

    Hi Peter – had not realised that you had moved into the diversity field. Check out my new venture at http://www.orijen.com.au – Executive Womens Business. Have been talking to Dom Thurbon as well. Can you share the full extent of your research with me? And one of my ex-McKinsey colleagues is interested in what you are doing – whats the most direct way to contact you? She is based in Houston.

    Cheers, Kriti (Colless)

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