Despite a decades-long push by scholars, activists, politicians, and business leaders, women remain underrepresented at every level in corporate America. According to findings from a study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co., released last month and covering 118 companies and nearly 30,000 employees, a wide range of diversity policies and programs hasn't moved the needle. We need to try something new.
It's clearer now than ever that addressing the gender problem only through corporate initiatives isn't enough. In 2013, a Pew Research Center study showed that not only do millennial women earn degrees at higher rates than men (whose workforce participation rates have been dropping with each generation) and are more likely to work in managerial roles, they also enter the workforce at near pay parity with men. Yet despite these improving demographics, women are still getting left behind.
What are we doing wrong?
There are likely a number of factors, but misallocated effort is one of them. Our focus should be less on protecting women through specialized programs and more on changing workplace cultures to everyone’s advantage.
That's where men come in. Since men currently occupy 83% of C-suite positions, 77% of SVP positions, 73% of VP level positions, and 63% of manager level positions—according to the same LeanIn/McKinsey study—not much can be accomplished without engaging those male business leaders.
Here are three strategies for persuading professional men to take on issues of women’s advancement in the workplace as their own.
In principle, most men support gender equality at work. The researchers found that some 70% of men believe gender diversity is important. However, only 12% believe women have fewer opportunities than men at work.
That's a serious disconnect, but it isn't so hard to account for, especially as men watch their female coworkers opt out of opportunities. For instance, the gap between men and women who strive for promotions widens with each step towards senior management. At the entry level, 39% of women and 47% of men in the LeanIn/McKinsey study said they want to be promoted, while at the senior levels, those figures are 60% and 72%, respectively. A gap of eight percentage points widening to 12 might not seem staggering, but when you recall how few women actually make it to upper management, the ambition shortfall is considerable.
You might therefore assume that women's underrepresentation in leadership positions has less to do with the workplace failing women than with women rejecting leadership. But that isn't entirely the case. To be sure, women choose not to compete for those positions for a variety of complex reasons, from discriminatory executive cultures to the detours of parenthood, just to name two.
But the numbers point to a culture problem that doesn't just affect women. For instance, 55% of childless women and 58% of working mothers in the survey cited the stress and pressure of leadership role as their reason for opting out of them. Men aren’t far behind, with 49% and 48%, respectively, in agreement. If the expectations of leadership are unsustainable for so many, it's clear that a more inclusive and diverse executive culture would benefit just about everyone.
What if men were able to have a closed but facilitated conversation about the leadership gaps and workplace issues facing the women in their workplace? In the LeanIn/McKinsey study, 13% of men said they felt it was harder for them to advance because of gender diversity programs. That view might be easy to disagree with, but it's impossible to ignore. What else would men admit to feeling if they could speak more freely? We first need to be able to express our concerns and biases before we can put them to the test and consider them more objectively.
Take Wharton Business School’s gender-equality club for men, Duke Business School’s Male Ambassadors Program, and Stanford Business School’s WIMen. These organizations highlight men’s agency and allow professional men to examine, confront, and take ownership of the problem in their own ways. Research conducted by gender intelligence specialist Barbara Annis points up an important truth: Men and women typically think and act differently, and failing to recognize those differences often leads to workplace conflict. When it comes to problem-solving adjustments in the workplace, it's crucial to give men a chance to offer solutions.
Let’s face it. Contemporary workplace culture often associates stereotypically masculine attributes with success. A Catalyst study asked corporate leaders to judge male and female leaders' effectiveness based on the 10 behaviors commonly associated with leadership, including "taking-care" traits (supporting, collaborating, rewarding, and inspiring) as well as "taking-charge" traits (analyzing, influencing, and delegating). Male respondents believed men to be more effective than women on all of the "taking-charge" traits, and women respondents for the most part agreed. This is in addition to a 2014 Gallup poll that showed that 26% of men and 39% of women still preferred a male boss if they were taking a new job.
Until we can break through those biases—among women as well as men—top-down, women's-only efforts are doomed to fail. Instead, let's start rethinking what constitutes effective leadership itself. Sure, one way to go about this is to ask for more women leaders. But another way is to support effective male leaders who don't have conventionally masculine leadership traits. After all, the data suggests it's both men and women who need to include more stereotypically feminine qualities in their visions of leadership.
If we can reimagine leadership as a more collaborative, supportive vocation, those qualities won't appear so gendered in the first place. And that, hopefully, can start making senior positions appealing and accessible to a much more diverse pool of talent than we're used to.