Real Leaders

How to Create a Women-Friendly Workplace

Last night I served on a panel discussion in front of hundreds of women working for a well-known global tech company. I gave them three specific habits designed to evolve their culture to a higher state. (More on that in a minute.) The challenge topic was “How can women better support each other in the workplace?”  The topic is hot for three reasons. They are supported by studies from firms like McKinsey that clearly show that corporate cultures are biased against women in three ways:

  1. Advancement and leadership opportunities strongly favor men because of the mistaken belief that dominant male (hard power) traits of assertiveness, confidence and decisiveness actually define superior leadership. This is simply not true. A meta-research analysis reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology of over 95 studies on leadership show that these factors do not predict effective leadership. (Iraq war anyone.) What they do predict is dominance. Nevertheless, evolutionary anthropology has seemingly wired our brains to mistake dominance for leadership. That’s a problem.
  1. Organizations favor people who dedicate virtually all their time and attention to organizational priorities in urgencies. It is well documented that women have a disproportionately high “home workload.” The traditional roles of childcare, managing the household, cleaning and cooking etc. mostly fall to women. Due to their higher levels of hormones related to empathy and nurturing they also take on greater emotional responsibility for the development and well-being of their children and loved ones. Yet in many organizations the idea of work-life balance is ridiculed as a failed ideal. In these organizations women are told that they can receive the same opportunities as men when they make the same commitment to their work. This might be legitimate if the contributions that women make at work were interchangeable with men’s contributions. If leaders of organizations do not believe that women’s holistic thinking and soft power traits of social intelligence, active collaboration, and value driven innovation bring a distinctive competitive advantage they will treat them like interchangeable miners in their salt mines.
  1. The third reason is perhaps the most frustrating.  My decades of experience helping companies navigate the stormy seas of cultural evolution and leadership excellence have revealed a disturbing observation. Generally, women are not proactive advocates of their distinctive value. And they seem reluctant to actively support other women as they ascend into leadership. Of course there are many exceptions to my last observation but it is what I see too often. I have noticed that women seem very comfortable working in peer teams. Yet if one is chosen to become a leader often the un-chosen women begin to distance themselves and even become critical of their former peer. This even has a name. It’s called the prom queen effect.(This is when a group of high school girls become jealous and gossipy when one of them becomes the prom queen.) This of course is not exclusively a woman problem. Men are frequently dysfunctionally competitive and downright cutthroat with their male colleagues. What disturbs me about women behaving this way is that they need all the mutual support they can get as a disadvantaged group.

So this is what I told hundreds of extremely smart professional women last night. There is ample proof that having significant numbers of women in all levels of leadership lead businesses to have distinct competitive advantages, especially in innovation. (A good starting place to examine the research is found in the Strategic Management Journal, September 2012.) Proactively working together to create a culture that approaches work achievement through the feminine strengths of holistic thinking, inclusion, and agile collaboration is a very smart thing to do…not just for women but also for your enterprise. Now here are the three simple habits I told last night’s audience that they can start doing to drive their culture forward:

  1. PLUS: Women need to “plus” each other. This means when you’re in a meeting and one of your female colleagues makes a suggestion or offers an insight that you immediately seize on the kernel of wisdom and “plus” it. You give her attribution by name saying something like this… “I think Kathy’s point that a root cause of missing deadlines may be not having the entire team meet together often enough is right on target…” then proceed with your point which builds on Kathy’s. The key to “plussing” is using the person’s name that you were trying to amplify and linking your point to hers. “Plussing” each other is very important because women report they often feel invisible in meetings. They tell me that they will frequently make a suggestion that no one even acknowledges. Then three minutes later a male will make the same suggestion and all of a sudden that male becomes the smartest person in the room. This, they tell me, is very frustrating!
  1. PUSH: Women need to push each other to take on greater responsibility and “sell” their good ideas. As I’ve written before, there was a mistaken notion that women are less confident than men. The research actually says that women only behave less confidently. Internally women are just as confident as men in their ideas, perceptions and decisions. Yet women are less likely to assert their points of view, ask for a promotion or take an unpopular position. For women to make a positive impact on organizations they need to push each other to say what they think, present their ideas, voice their criticisms and contribute all that they can. So when women hear other women expressing doubt as to whether they should “go for it” they need to push each other upward.
  1. PROMOTE: Women in leadership positions should promote the careers of other women. The best women leaders I have worked with have aggressively and consistently fought for big opportunities for younger women to leapfrog forward in their careers. It is very encouraging when a young woman knows that her career opportunities are being promoted when she is not in the room.

If you are a woman in business you are in a disadvantaged group. A minority group is disadvantaged when treating them equally to the advantaged group perpetuates unfairness. In most business organizations work-obsessed males have set the standards of success behavior. As long as those standards and expectations are unquestioned women will be disadvantaged. Yet women do not have to be victimized. When they act together using the simple habits of PLUS, PUSH and PROMOTE they can change the business culture. And that would be a big PLUS!

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