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Gender diversity is on the radar in corporate America after more than 10 years of research highlighting the economic benefits of women in leadership roles.

Companies have invested in gender initiatives that aim to support women’s advancement and diversify the leadership pipeline. Some companies have been at it for multiple decades. Yet, the results seem to be much ado about nothing.

McKinsey and LeanIn’s 2017 annual Women in the Workplace report on the state of women’s advancement recounts the sad tale – women fall behind early in their careers and the gender gaps widen at each step along the career ladder. And year after year the changes are marginally positive at best.

So what is going on? Why despite much effort on the part of organizations does the big picture of women’s place in corporate America look eerily similar to 10, 20, or more years ago?

The truth is that despite much effort, corporate work environments – developed by and for men – continue to be defined by masculine rules of engagement. In multiple ways, so many women at work continue to feel like a square peg in a round hole.

Masculine and Feminine Behavioral Norms Diverge

To understand the disconnect, let’s begin with the well-researched premise that masculine behavioral norms are deeply linked to hierarchy. Men think in terms of competition and increasing their relative positioning, aka power and status. Dominance behaviors often define their approach.

Translated into the workplace, this looks like men bragging about their accomplishments – accomplishments that often are inflated. This looks like talking over others and mansplaining – talking without interruption – to control the floor or from lack of self-awareness. This looks like posturing and talking a big game to get the upper hand in a negotiation. This looks like sexualizing women – perhaps unintentionally – or intentionally with the goal of marginalizing them by seeking to ‘keep them in their place.

Women have been socialized to equalize, rather than to differentiate, resulting in a predisposition to share rather than to concentrate power. Stephen Lukes, a sociologist who has written extensively about power, contrasts the approach of getting an individual to do something they may, or may not, want to do with a far more sophisticated and cooperative alternative in which both those who do – and do not – benefit from the status quo have agency to influence the system. Women tend toward the latter.

Translated into the workplace, this looks like sharing credit, even in situations where others played a small role. It translates into women being more soft-spoken and less likely to put someone on the spot. It translates into women focusing on shared goals, rather than power differentials, in negotiations.

The Rockefeller Foundation commissioned Korn Ferry to study women CEOs to learn how more women can make it to the top. What they found was, in comparison to their male counterparts, women CEOs demonstrated far more humility, were more likely to credit others as playing a central role in their shared success, and were significantly less likely to self promote.

Leadership = Men, Masculine Norms Prevail

Not surprisingly, leadership in the business world has been defined through the gender lens of masculinity, rendering women lacking. How many times has it been said, “she lacks gravitas” or “she doesn’t have enough executive presence to be a leader.”

Studies show that women are deeply drawn to a sense of purpose and meaning, often connected to helping others and to women’s vision of making the world a better place. A longitudinal study of more than 700 engineering students at premier universities found that a central reason so many women leave the engineering field was a disconnect between their drive to solve problems that make a difference in people’s lives and their workplace experience of corporate proclamations rather than demonstrated commitment to improving society. Similarly the Korn Ferry study reported women leaders were driven by a strong sense of purpose, perceiving their companies as positively impacting the world.

Research by the OECD [an organization focused on promoting policies that improve the economic and social well-being of people worldwide] and UNWomen show that when women have greater access to economic resources, they spend those dollars on things like health care and education, bettering not only themselves and their families but also their communities in the process. Yet in the business world, where cold, hard analytical thinking is king, male leaders denigrate women’s emotions, marginalizing women by characterizing them as ‘not tough enough to make the hard decisions’ or ‘lacking business acumen.’ Why then are men, driven by emotion as they make risky trades on the stock market and pursue questionable acquisitions, [most of which provide NO economic benefit to shareholders,], praised for their gutsy decisions and held blameless for failures rationalized as the cost of doing business?

For most professional women, advancement is very important but, it is not their only goal. Thus, they are more likely to forgo an opportunity that does not fit into the big picture of their life at that time. Commitment and hard work are not an issue for women but the all-in, all-the-time definition of leadership that prevails is.[i] How many women start their long workdays having already fed their children, thrown in a load of laundry, answered some emails, made lunches and maybe even started dinner? Yet women receive messaging that they aren’t committed enough!
Bain & Company’s 2014 US gender partity research found that while women start out with as much, or more, career ambition than their male peers, after two short years on the job, their career aspirations decline precipitously while men’s remain constant.

Why the big drop? Women continually encounter the masculine leadership norm of the ideal worker who is singularly focused because they have a partner who deals with all the rest. What if we stopped telling women they aren’t committed enough at work? And what if we start telling men that they and their loved-ones are paying the emotional price for their no limits, masculine leadership model?

To make matters worse, it seems that no matter how women behave, they just can’t seem to get it right. Women who meet stereotypical gender expectations of being nurturing and accommodating – are deemed likable but “not leadership material” – while women who are assertive get kudos for possessing leadership potential but also judged as lacking interpersonal skills. Leadership or likeability – it seems women can only pick one.

The Problematic Value Proposition for Aspiring Women Leaders

When women in the pipeline look up, they see struggle because of their gender, little support to figure it out, and the need to combat even greater – not less – gender bias with each step up the corporate ladder. Feminine behavioral norms are devalued and even when women behave like men, they’re still judged lacking. Why then are we surprised when women don’t say, “Please sign me up for more of that?”

McKinsey and LeanIn’s 2017 Women in the Workplace report captures the struggle. Women progress at a slower rate than their male colleagues, despite asking for promotions at comparable rates and being no more likely to leave their companies. In fact, men report they are more likely to receive raises and promotions without even having to ask. Women in the study were nearly 5 times as likely as men to report gender played a role in their chance for a promotion or raise. Is it any wonder why women lose optimism in their career potential?

While men are doing more at home than their father’s generation, women continue to disproportionately shoulder the load at home, in many cases enabling their partner’s singular work focus. And the cycle continues!

Meanwhile many men can’t even see that the playing field is tipped, essentially invalidating the lived experience of their women co-workers. It makes me think of the many women’s voices that have been twisted and silenced for so long when calling out sexual harassment. Finally in this Harvey Weinstein epoch, women are being heard.

Contributor Bio

Lisa Levey is a veteran diversity consultant, having worked with leading organizations for more than two decades to assist them in realizing the underutilized leadership potential of women. Her current work focuses on engaging men as allies and partners. She led the design and development of the Forte Foundation’s Male Ally signature resource platform for engaging men in diversity work and architected a pilot program to launch corporate male ally groups. She blogs for the Huffington Post and the Good Men Project on gender norms at work and at home. In the spring of 2018 partnering with her husband Bryan, Lisa is launching Genderworks, a coaching practice for dual-career professional parents to support them in navigating the obstacles to gender equality at work and at home. Lisa earned an MBA with highest honors from the Simmons School of Management and a BS with distinction from Cornell University in applied economics.