When one male-dominated company tackled gender diversity head on, they saw some interesting results and began to let go of the ‘myth’ of meritocracy
Taking advantage of workplace diversity is one of the critical challenges of leadership. Organisations with a track record of developing leaders from a particular background are likely to be suffering from diversity, inclusion and leadership problems at the same time.
Because of this, women continue to be under-represented at senior levels of most global corporations. Even when women do “all the right things” to advance their careers, Catalyst research shows they’re offered fewer of the “hot jobs” and sponsorship opportunities that can lead to promotion. Old-fashioned sexism and gender biases unintentionally embedded in talent management systems are largely to blame.
This isn’t a problem women can or should solve alone. It’s up to today’s business leaders – mostly men – to devise and implement effective strategies for tapping a labour pool comprising 50% women. With trends such as board diversity quotas and women outperforming men in the classroom, the cost of doing nothing will only increase.
The secret is the ability to create a sense of belonging and cohesion among all people in a business or organisation, without glossing over the differences in their experiences, values and skills. Finding commonalities while also understanding and leveraging our differences can yield big rewards.
Rockwell Automation, a global engineering company, is finding this out first-hand. The company wanted to increase the gender and ethnic diversity of its North American sales division, which was historically dominated by white men. But rather than embarking on a diversity recruitment initiative, it focused on changing its culture first.
Working with White Men as Full Diversity Partners, a leadership development organisation based in Oregon, Rockwell began from the premise that, like it or not, group identities matter.
Central to effectively leading people “like us” and people “different from us” is first understanding how our own group affiliations affect us and the ways in which others react to us. For the mostly white male leaders of Rockwell’s North American sales division, this meant grappling with something most white men don’t think of: what it means to be a white man.
Programme participants examined white male culture and experiences, and also practised skills such as critical thinking about how colleagues’ group memberships affect their work experiences, addressing rather than avoiding difficult points of difference among colleagues and actively seeking out perspectives of colleagues from different backgrounds.
A follow-up study by Catalyst on the impact of this program found early evidence of a cultural shift, including an increase in workplace civility and a decline in negative gossip. In addition, participants began letting go of the myth of meritocracy – that the best talent naturally rises to the top of organisations – and started to accept that group-based inequities exist. Importantly, managers also began to understand how they play an integral role in creating an inclusive work environment where all talent can be tapped and valued equally.
For Rockwell managers, recognising that staff were affected by and responsive to their identities as white males was a breakthrough that made them more inclusive and effective leaders. This is a critical lesson for other organisations: rather than feeling responsible for group-based inequities that they did not create, white male managers should feel empowered and equipped to lead the creation of an inclusive workplace.
The results at Rockwell are a testament to the power of turning old ideas about leadership upside-down and the importance of understanding and managing group identities through honest dialogue. Empowerment and skill-building, not shaming and blaming, are key to engaging men as advocates for change.
Jeanine Prime is vice president for research at Catalyst
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