Why the C-Suite Needs a Culture Change

The latest “Women in the Workplace” report has little good news about the gender gap in leadership. But it points to some ideas that bosses (and boards) can make use of.

What does the conversation about equality in the workplace look like? For one thing, we remain deeply capable of thinking we’ve attained equality, even when we haven’t.

That’s one takeaway from the third annual “Women in the Workplace” survey published by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company. Last year’s study highlighted how women are often stymied in their climb up the corporate ladder: less than half of the respondents were in line for a C-suite job, and only 30 percent actually held them. This year’s study takes a closer look at the cultural forces that help create this divide. As Associations Now summarized it last month: “Women think gender equality is still a work in progress, while many men think the problem has been solved.”

That delusion runs pretty deep. As the summary of the report puts it: “Nearly 50 percent of men think women are well represented in leadership in companies where only one in ten senior leaders is a woman.” There are other examples of the divide: While half of men surveyed say their organizations consider diverse applicant pools, only 35 percent of women say so. More than 60 percent of men say their companies are doing what it takes to improve gender diversity, but only 49 percent of women agree. And while 55 percent of men say disrespectful behavior toward women in the workplace is handled quickly, only 35 percent of women say that’s so.

That data, however dispiriting, is valuable because it underscores the fact that these gender divides are often deep-seated cultural issues that require awareness of blind spots among leaders; a couple of webinars on sexual harassment and gender equality isn’t going to crack the problem. There’s a virtue, I argued last year, in training a spotlight on the cultural problem, even while it runs the risk of women employees getting characterized as “bossy” or “intimidating” for their trouble.

“We need to cast the net more widely to create a strong pipeline of female candidates.”

The baby steps to take here—and touchy matters of workplace diversity usually require baby steps—is to emphasize the business case for equality. “When employees think gender diversity leads to business results, they are more likely to be personally committed,” says the report. That argument is clumsily delivered, though: “However, while 78 percent of organizations say they articulate a business case, only 16 percent back up the case with numbers.”

Another place associations might look is at their boards—after all, cultural change starts with the tone from the top, and boards represent that top-most leadership. Last week, Principles for Responsible Investment’s Fiona Reynolds wrote in Board Agenda about some efforts globally to increase the number of women board members. “Getting senior male executives to support greater representation of women is key to keeping diversity moving ahead, especially since men are still overwhelmingly in the decision-making positions,” she writes.

But this isn’t a matter of setting quotas, which run the risk of, at best, making diversity and inclusion an unthinking activity, and at worst sowing resentment among leaders. The more attentive and thoughtful approach, Reynolds suggests, is that boards look beyond traditional C-suite women leaders for their boards because first, there are too few women in those roles to start with (as the LeanIn.org/McKinsey survey points out, “women hit the glass ceiling early”); and second, because it can serve as a prompt to move accomplished women into those C-suite roles.

“We need to cast the net more widely—well beyond the C-suite, where we do not find enough women—to create a strong pipeline of female candidates,” Reynolds writes. That alone won’t resolve the issue, of course—workplace equality has a variety of moving parts that involve matters of how employees are hired and how they’re supported throughout their careers. But ultimately equality is not a numbers problem but a cultural problem—the numbers are just symptomatic of the biases that have persisted in workplaces for years. The fix begins when leaders acknowledge those biases and take genuine steps to address them.

What does your organization do to address equality in leadership roles, either on the board or staff? Share your experiences in the comments.

(jozefmicic/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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