Courageous Conversations: A New Way to Shatter the Glass Ceiling

by Deborah Rocco

No issue facing business today has a greater need for a collaborative approach than the issue of Women in Leadership. 

The business case is irrefutable and the gender dividend is well documented.  Companies with more women in senior leadership roles and on boards perform better. 

What’s more, the war for talent is a global issue.  Women comprise more than half of college graduates many places in the world and this number continues to rise.  Demographics are changing.  Companies who fail to address the issue of recruiting, retaining, developing, and advancing women into senior leadership roles will be left behind.

Where are the Men?

The conversation has been re-energized in the media, in governments around the world, and within organizations however many of us aren't hearing anything new. And perhaps even more alarming: The real conversations about this issue still are mostly by and among women.

IA’s work in and around the issue reflects what is happening on a broader scale.  Over the past 12 months, we have spoken at several women in leadership-related conferences and conducted a couple of webinars where the ratio of participants was 90% women/10% men.

Recently, we conducted a pulse survey about women in leadership that was sent to 422 people. The response rate by gender fits that same ratio: about 90/10, women to men. We will release the full survey results in May, and you’ll see some sobering data. But for now, let’s consider just a few data points, and what they confirmed for us.

Lack of Comfort with Gender Bias Conversations

Why is it important for men to engage in the conversation, and what will it take to get them there?  First, it’s clear from the survey data we collected from more than 400 respondents, men and women see gender issues very differently.  As a matter of fact, despite men's lack of engagement in the conversation – or perhaps, because of it – their perception about what is happening in their organization is very different than the perception held by women.

For example, from our pulse survey: When asked if "people in my organization are comfortable talking about gender bias and its impact with organization executives and leaders,” twice as many men responded that this described their organization “extremely or very well” than did women!

Perhaps it is because organization executives are still predominately men that men are more comfortable talking about this issue with executive leaders? 

Yet the percentages vary only slightly when respondents were asked if "people in my organization are comfortable talking about gender bias and its impact with colleagues/peers.” In this case, 39% of men responded that this described their organization "extremely or very well," compared with fewer than one-fourth of women.

Even more important than the gender difference is the finding that fewer than 30% of all respondents are comfortable talking about this issue within the workplace.  After decades of work on this issue, why is it still not safe to talk about gender bias and its impact?

Having The Conversation: Safety First

My belief is that the problem lies with the structure of our conversations.  This issue, like most business issues, is being approached from a problem solving frame – which typically requires one to find the problem, explore the causes, identify the solution, and implement an action plan: one and done.  In my conversations with many CEO's and senior executives, they are looking for a check-the-box solution. This is the approach we have taken for decades … and the results speak for themselves.

The problem with the problem solving approach is that it begins with finding who's right and who's wrong. As a result, it does more to incite controversy and alienate stakeholders than it does to move us forward.  It also implies that there is a check-the -box solution.....a policy we can put in place, a development opportunity we can offer a few times … and then go about our business as we always have, problem solved.

I believe we need to change the conversation by taking an appreciative approach: a generative approach that invites men and women into the conversation in a new way.  A conversation that lets go of finding out who is at fault and embraces possibilities.  A conversation that recognizes our future requires ongoing collaboration in a very conscious way.

Our survey findings would suggest men's and women's perceptions about what is happening within their organizations is very different.

When asked if "gender bias exists in my organization," fewer than one-third of men responded they “strongly or somewhat agree,” compared with 49% of women!

There is a lot to talk about, and a lot that needs to change, in order to eradicate gender bias in our organizations and in our society.  It is a complex issue calling for a diversity of stakeholder voices and a vision for what's possible. It will take courage, collaboration, and some very specific conversation skills – including the ability to listen.

The organizations that will achieve sustainable results are those who build the capability for conscious collaboration – who become self-aware, self-correcting, and self-transforming. These organizations recognize that creating a culture that fosters the well-being of all of its employees is a journey, not a destination. 

I hope you’ll check back in a couple of weeks to review all the data from our Women in Leadership pulse survey.



Tags : authentic leadership collaboration collaborative leadership women executives women leaders women in leadership

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