Because She's A Woman

Avoid framing work-related competencies in terms of styles and traits.

Every month, Terry Howard, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Texas Instruments, writes a diversity column for his company’s newsletter that goes out to all 32,000 TI employees. In November 2013, Terry will be running a column that will answer questions he was asked by women at his company—including women in senior leadership. Terry shared these questions with me and I’ve asked the MARC bloggers to weigh in on them with the aim of sparking critical conversations.

Critical conversations are open-ended, judgment-free discussions where the goal is to learn and explore different perspectives. Candid yet respectful dialogue about our differences (and lots of it) is the foundation for building a more inclusive workplace and achieving concrete change.

So let's get started! 

Over the next three weeks, I’ll be featuring our bloggers' responses to the questions from Texas Instruments. In turn, Terry Howard will excerpt a number of these responses in his November column. I’d like to thank Terry for this idea—I know that MARC members and TI employees will learn a lot from this collaboration. For the first of our six-part Critical Conversation Series, we are featuring blogger Graeme Russell. To keep the conversation going, please 
leave a comment below and register for our upcoming Critical Conversations Webinar on October 30, 2013. – Mike Otterman


Why, in 2013, does there seem to still be an underlying thought that the only way a woman got that upper level position or promotion was "because she's a woman" rather than "she's got great skills for this job?”

This question goes to a fundamental and continuing mindset that women (as a group) bring something different to the workplace. Evidence for this stereotyped, and often unchallenged, mindset can easily be found. Three examples include:
1. In the September edition of the Harvard Business Review (Groysberg & Connolly, 2013, p. 72), it was reported that eight of the 24 CEOs interviewed for the article perceived a distinction between male and female leadership styles. These style differences included: women are more collaborative, better listeners, more relationship-oriented, more empathetic, more reasonable, and are more likely to focus on completing the job at hand.
2. In an article in the Australian Financial Review (October 2, 2013) by Gayle Peterson (co-director of Women Transforming Leadership, Said Business School, University of Oxford) it was argued that one of the 10 things companies can do to encourage women into leadership roles is to: “Recognize that women’s leadership traits are the ‘secret sauce’ to tackling the toughest issues facing your company.” The traits women tended to possess were described as: compassion, collaboration and the ability to create and drive an inspiring vision.
3. In a recent study I conducted in a workplace in Australia, a group of 52 managers were asked what they saw as the business arguments for their organization to focus on gender equality. The overwhelming majority of women (82% of 17) focused on the ability of women to do the job and that a woman is equally as likely as a man to have the required skills and performance capabilities. An emphatic view expressed was the need for women and men to be treated the same in terms of their skills and abilities to perform a job. In contrast, only 14% of the 35 men interviewed were of this view. A more common view expressed by this group of men was that women bring added value to the workplace based on gender differences, eg., “women think differently to men;” “women are naturally different from men;” “women are more collaborative and compassionate;” “women are better behaved and are more conscious of safety;” and “women pay more attention to detail.” Many of the men also supported their views by drawing on their personal experiences, eg., “my spouse is more compassionate than I am.”
Despite the very different contexts within which the above comments were made, there is a remarkable consistency in the perspectives. The language, eg., styles and traits, and explanations, imply that there are “natural” or “fixed” gender-based differences that result in women (as a group) adding value to the workplace. Further, the female-specific characteristics highlighted are closely aligned with cultural stereotypes of femininity.
What can be done about this? Here are five tips:
1. Shift the focus from gender diversity to gender equality. In my experience the dialogue and actions that result from a gender diversity frame tend to result in greater emphasis being given to gender differences, gender stereotyping, and to essentializing women.
2. Focus on the skills and behaviors required for job performance and avoid the framing of work-related competencies in terms of “styles” and “traits.”
3. Make the diversity of underlying gender assumptions and mindsets about both work and care explicit or visible in your organization. This can be achieved through both interview and focus group processes.
4. Develop the skills of your workforce to engage in an open dialogue to reveal and debate gender-based assumptions and mindsets, and provide facilitated mixed-gender forums for this dialogue to occur.  A recent Catalyst publication, Anatomy of Change:  How Inclusive Cultures Evolve, provides an excellent framework for this work.
5. Recognize that the pathway to change is likely to be different for gender than for other areas of diversity. Day-to-day lived personal experiences in relation to gender (as was illustrated in the above research) are likely to have a profound impact on gender-based mindsets about work and care.
Posted by Graeme Russell on Oct 16, 2013 5:40 PM America/New_York

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These are great tips Graeme! It is a wonderful idea to move the conversation from gender differences to overall equality.
  • Posted Mon 21 Oct 2013 05:04 PM EDT
I love the focus on skills over traits/styles. Much more focused on the value that the individual will bring to the task and not on the differences of gender. Excellent!
  • Posted Mon 21 Oct 2013 07:59 PM EDT
These are extremely useful insights and especially encouraging coming from the tech industry where women make up just 25% of the workforce, according to a special section in today's Wall Street Journal.

How do we get from these brilliant diversity directors to practice on the shop floor or the corporate offices?
  • Posted Mon 21 Oct 2013 09:38 PM EDT
Your suggestion to change from "gender diversity" to "gender equality" is excellent. This is truly the goal so the latter term is more actionable and measurable. And when one thinks about it, just how diverse can we get with regard to gender? I will share this with my team.
  • Posted Sat 05 Jul 2014 01:04 PM EDT


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