Want to fix gender inequality at work? Start by asking the right question

The arc of history bends to greater participation by women in leadership roles. But when we talk about the “business case” for that change let’s consider reframing the question.

By Adam Quinton - Cartier Awards jury member for North America

The business case for gender diversity in business leadership is simply that having a higher proportion of women in senior positions drives stronger business performance.

I believe, however, that the business case argument is part of the problem, as much as it is part of the solution…not least because it doesn’t seem to be changing things in proportion to its claims (and that, as a result, “the business case fatigue” is settling in).

Let’s face it, if the business case was getting traction, we wouldn’t be asking the “why have we stalled?” question in the first place.

Why might this seemingly well-constructed edifice be built on less firm ground? My thoughts:

• It is based on research that is vulnerable to the “correlation is not causation” critique. Hence, as a matter of fact, it is not as robust and persuasive as its proponents suggest.

• It unintentionally validates the status quo. Most companies in the US have leadership teams dominated by white guys. Rather than challenging that reality, the business case seeks to explain why the status quo should be modified to let outsiders in, as opposed to questioning whether we are at the right start point.

• It fails to confront the pervasive “myth of meritocracy.” If you believe your organization to be meritocratic, then you, and all the other white guy leaders like you can rest easy that you got where you are because of talent and hard work, not luck or a system biased in your favor! Privilege is invisible to those that have it.

• It confuses numbers with real inclusion. Inclusion is hard to define and harder to measure but is the key factor that will determine if an organization with diverse representation gets the best from its people. As my colleagues Ripa Rashid and Laura Sherbin at the Center for Talent Innovation have explained: “Diversity Does Not Stick Without Inclusion.”

• The business base needs to be pitched by MALE leaders, not to them. Avivah Wittenberg Cox, CEO of 20-First, makes the point that the power of the business case as a persuasive tool is greatest in the hands of men making the case to their direct reports, teams etc. Women, minorities and other under-represented groups don’t need the lecture. And, if they give it, they can be dismissed (unfairly) as being self-serving.

In my view the “business case” argument, is an answer to the WRONG question. Rather, we should be trying to challenge the start point – namely the assumption that men ‘deserve to be there.’

Rather than asking what the rationale is to let outsiders in, the business case question(s) should be:
• “What is the business case for corporate leadership dominated by mediocre white men?
• Why does that produce better results?
• Why is that meritocratic?”

It is true that moving towards more gender-balanced leadership is complicated and hard. But it’s not impossible.

I am optimistic about the prospects for advancing gender equity in business and hence more women into leadership positions, because:

1. Corporations are becoming the social conscience of the nation.
Corporations are emerging as progressive voices to fill the vacuum created by a divisive political environment. This is partly in response to more value-oriented consumers and the power of social media to voice employees’ frustrations. But also, because CEOs can no long stand aside and ignore #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #TimesUp and similar movements when it comes to the dialog with their own staff (and potential hires too). As part of this sea change in corporate social responsibility, gender equality in leadership becomes a visible component showing leaders can “walk the walk.”.

2. Women are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore.
#MeToo and #TimesUp directly confront the past and current realities women face around sexual harassment and assault. By having the courage to speak up, women are finding their voice. Men need to act responsibly (treating female colleagues like they would their mother, sister etc. – and not assault, harass or demean anyone) and companies need to address the realities I discussed about and push towards more women in senior roles. As Avivah Wittenberg Cox points out, company cultures need to become more “gender bilingual” and gender balance in business isn’t a battle between men and women.

3. The political landscape is shifting dramatically
The number of women running for political office in the US, at all levels, has risen dramatically since the start of 2017. For example, Politico reports “nearly 60 percent more women declaring plans to run for the House and the Senate this year compared to the 2016 election.” If this is sustained, as I expect it will be because role models beget more following behind them, then the political sphere in the US will change in a way that will lead to changes in policy that benefit both women and men. This in turn will influence the business world. For example the US might cease to be one of only three countries in the world that do not provide national paid maternity leave.

4. The reign of the stale pale and male leadership cohort is inexorably coming to an end
This for two reasons. First, due to demographic shifts, there just won’t be enough men to go around and staff every executive committee and boardroom (white males makeup about 32% of the US population now but under 25% of an average class full of five-year-olds). Second, the slow rolling tsunami of women’s superior educational achievement rolls on as more women finish Associate, Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD degrees. (There is a crisis in the US when it comes to educational attainment of … boys and young men.)

The flip side is that the educated cohorts of women who can be the leaders of the future grow ever larger and larger than those of their male peers.

So, for many reasons, the arc of history bends to greater participation by women in leadership roles. But when we talk about the “business case” for that change let’s consider reframing the question. Away from, “Why let women in?” to “Why are all the men there in the first place?”




Adam Quinton is an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and member of the Management and Gender & Public Policy Faculties as well as Faculty Advisor to the SIPA "Women in Leadership" student group. As the Founder/CEO of Lucas Point Ventures he invested in and advised a number of early stage companies with a focus on diverse founding teams. Follow him on Twitter and on LinkedIn.