Representation requires more than education

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This week, I was challenged on my vision that every boardroom table should reflect the diversity we see in society. I was told that the best people should be chosen for each role, and that equality would shake out over time. I call bull$hit.

I had reposted an article from an internationally known business magazine, which explored why women were seen to have been such effective leaders during the pandemic. I agreed with a lot of what the article said, but when it came to its conclusions, I just couldn’t swallow the thesis – that the solution to getting more women at boardroom tables was to train more men in empathy and in Diversity and Inclusion principles.

Education is important, but it’s not everything

Under no circumstances am I saying that we should stop training men in D&I, or back off on the terrific programs that help men to lead with more compassion and empathy. But investing in more training and development of men is NOT going to drive equality in the C-Suite. That’s like saying that to encourage swimming, we need to train the already-great swimmers out there to be lifeguards. Yes, we need good lifeguards. But everyone needs to know how to swim – and that means they need access to the pool, support to grow, and tools to be successful.

There are a lot of things we need to do as a society to achieve equality around boardroom tables and I’d like us to start by paying women and other equity-seeking candidates in the same way that we pay men. We can close the gender pay gap (and by that, I mean equalize pay across all genders, including trans and non-binary people, and diversities) by agreeing that, if we can compensate and promote men based on their potential, we can do the same for everyone else.

While we’re at it, let’s call out the automatic assumption that women are the ones who need to press pause on their careers when their families are in need. Many women, when given the choice, want to act as the primary caregiver for their children and elderly parents – staying home in the first months of life, being there to support remote working, supporting parents with appointments and other needs. Others would prefer to make a different choice. The problem is that our society expects and conditions females to sacrifice their dreams in support of others. The problem is that society makes this choice for us.

In a typical hetero relationship, the gender pay gap contributes to men making more than their female partners, and so, when circumstances demand a change, the conversations starts with the assumption that the female partner will step back from their own dreams. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, the rate of women stepping back from their careers hit an all time high. You can’t tell me every one of those women wanted to walk away from their life’s work. Of course not. But when it comes down to family income, it just makes sense that the lower-wage earner be the one to assume family responsibilities. And in most traditional families, the lower-wage earner is female.

The problem is everywhere

This female sacrifice happens at every level of every organization. In my own life, I know entry level workers, unicorns who were on a fast track to the C-Suite, and female CEOs who didn’t feel as though they had the choice to keep working when the disruption of COVID-19 hit. They told me they stepped back, because “I needed to, for my family.” They stopped swimming and got out of the pool.

And how did society respond? It lamented the loss of women from leadership roles. But now that things are slowly shifting back to “normal”, what’s changed? How have organizations prioritized not just recruiting, but retaining, promoting, and supporting diversity within their leadership ranks. I keep looking, but I’m not finding a whole lot of inspiration out there. Please help me out – if you know of promising practices and innovative organizations, please share them in the comments; I’d love to learn about them, and I’d love to talk about them.

There is not just one solution

Advancing diversity across leadership is not something that can be understood or solved in a 1000 word blog post. Every person has their own experience, and every organization is on their own journey. That said, in my humble opinion, training men to be more inclusive is a very small piece of the puzzle.

The complex solution involves responsibilities of existing leaders, organizations, and diverse individuals themselves. Leaders need to value and set organizational priorities around diversity. Organizations need to invest (like, as in actual dollars) in growth of diverse leaders and create net new policies and programs that help to retain diverse leaders throughout critical points of work/life dissonance. And individuals need to invest in themselves – understand their worth, negotiate for what they need to be successful, and take pride in every step that opens the door for another woman, trans, non-binary, or otherwise equity-seeking colleague. Again, helping people swim in the leadership pool is about more than ensuring good lifeguards. It’s only through multiple, sustained paths of effort that we will see representation within leadership across all organizations. We all have a role in this work. What are you doing to advance it?

Dismantling (and even just existing within) the patriarchy is exhausting. If you haven’t seen last week’s post, you might want to take a few minutes to read about why rest is a revolution – and consider taking some time to fill up your own cup.

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