Getting past a "binders full of women" mentality.
During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, Mitt Romney's “binders full of women” comment prompted raised eyebrows and even some outrage. The response stemmed from the way the comment seemed to imply that women are a commodity. As a commodity, they could simply be plugged into certain roles to achieve the “right” percentage or mix.
Regardless of your reaction to Romney’s comment, I believe this unconscious faux pas underscores the mindset most prevalent among even well-intended male leaders: that gender equity is simply a numbers game to be solved by placing a few women in key roles and coaching them to act like "good leaders" (in other words, like white men).
This mindset also encompasses the notion that women must mentor and coach men on gender equity because gender equity is an issue women naturally know more about than men.
Why “Binders Full of Women” Doesn’t Work
My experience over the last 20 years tells me that this approach doesn’t work: it absolves men from the responsibility of having to think proactively and engage with women and other men to address equity issues. It propagates the myth that men don’t know enough about gender equity to address the issue effectively. It lets men off the hook and, as a result, ratchets up the pressure on women to lead change and teach men simultaneously.
This flawed mindset fosters the notion that one woman can speak for all women. It also creates a catch-22 for many women: when they do go out on a limb and speak their truth, and their truth doesn't match that of their male colleagues, it can jeopardize women’s credibility and stature and lead to charges of being self-serving.
Teaching women to act “like the guys” is a coping strategy, not a long-term, sustainable solution. It overlooks the fact that gender equity is actually a culture-change issue requiring the involvement of both genders.
What Happens When We Focus on Women Exclusively?
I recently facilitated a strategy session for a committed and engaged leadership team struggling to raise their retention rates for senior-level technical women. Leading up to the session, team members had interviewed only women about the gender challenges in their part of the organization.
During the session itself, the leadership team invited 15 women to help with the dialogue. During the strategy session I asked the leadership team to call out what they knew about their efforts to address gender equity as a result of their interviews. Finally some of the courageous women not on the team acknowledged that talking only to women was probably not sufficient. To their credit, the leadership team also recognized the need to engage more men and examine how the organization’s unwritten behavioral norms favored and rewarded male work and leadership styles.
A number of years ago, I was having a similar discussion with D&I leaders from a global energy company ready to roll out a women’s leadership effort in continental Europe. Their approach was to focus on the women in the system (20% of the workforce) and equip them with the skills they needed to succeed in a heavily male-dominated work environment. Late in their planning, they realized that this women-only focus simply invited women to take on traditional male characteristics. They realized they also needed to engage men in their gender equity efforts, not simply teach the women to act like men. They scrapped their original program and began to focus on a leadership development effort that engaged both men and women.
From Commodity to Partner
For gender equity efforts to move beyond a “binders full of women” mentality, these efforts must be seen as a culture change and leadership development issue. The real change effort begins in earnest when men reclaim and further strengthen their partnerships with women and restart their partnerships with other men.
Tips for men to strengthen their partnerships with women:
Make it a two-way partnership. Bring your full self to your partnerships with women. Start with challenging any thinking you or others may have that discounts your own knowledge, intuition, and insight. Yes, your knowledge and insight will be different, and they add depth to a complex topic. Show up fully.
Do your own work as a gender equity partner. I once had an incredible conversation with a woman of color who was attending a partnership skill-building day I was facilitating. She was there with her white male boss. Early in the day, she sought me out to express how delighted she was with the enormous work she had done for months to get her boss to attend the day with her. She was excited that finally I would help teach her boss some needed partnership lessons. She assumed her work was done. Later that day she realized that all her effort to help him “get it” had kept her from looking at her own partnership issues with her boss and other men. Her boss also realized he could do more to support his own learning and to step into a new role of full partnership. The day transformed their relationship in numerous ways. They both examined their own role in the partnership and decided to make some much-needed changes.
When you bring something to the table—such as revealing an assumption that’s become habitual for you or naming a privilege you benefit from—you give your partner the opportunity to do their own work. When men exclusively look to women to teach them about gender equity, women often don't have time to examine their own assumptions and how these impact their partnerships.
As men, don’t outsource or abdicate leadership on gender equity issues and/or hold women solely responsible for dealing with them. I can’t tell you how many meetings I have attended where gender equity and its impact were being discussed among women and men other than me weren’t in the room or even part of the conversation. Men need to get more involved in these efforts from the get-go. Bring your own thinking to the dialogue as you listen to others. Interrogate your own and others’ assumptions that it’s your female colleagues’ job to tell you and the other guys what to do next. Let women know you are willing to be part of the conversation and the leadership effort.
Expect to make big mistakes in your partnerships. You don’t need to be perfect. Talk about how you and your partners will recover before either of you misstep. If you are not making mistakes, you are probably not doing the right work. Get out on your partnership edge.
Speak your truth. Get more comfortable being confused or even uncomfortable. Talk about what you know and also what you are confused by. Be real and authentic. Don't treat your partnerships with women like you are reading prepared talking points. Speak from your heart as well as your head.
Look for patterns in meetings and interactions that minimize, ignore or invalidate different contributions and leadership styles (from both men and women). Notice what styles get valued. Work to open up more paths to include and validate different styles and approaches. Focus on results, not on implementing whatever style or approach has historically been viewed as the right or only way.
Don’t patronize a woman because of her gender. Hold her accountable the same way you hold men accountable for delivering results.
Initiate and engage in potentially difficult conversations with both men and women about gender equity. When you expect women to do a disproportionate amount of the heavy lifting, it lets you and other guys off the hook. Work with and engage other men. Both challenge and support them.
When men become more conscious and competent partners, we’ll begin to see how all our differences, from gender and race to age and physical ability, support our efforts to cultivate cultures of full inclusion in the workplace.