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It’s sad and disheartening how little has been accomplished over past decades in making our workplaces more equitable for women. It’s not a new challenge. But leaders and organizations that normally take pride in their ability to overcome formidable obstacles and launch bold transformations have produced puny results.

The challenges are many and complicated. But in light of reading two recent books – one looking at Canadian women; the other globally focused, through the eyes of Harvard Business School graduates – let’s synthesize it to four main problems and five solutions you can embrace as an individual manager in your own team.

After interviewing more than 50 senior female executives from across Canada, Paul Harrietha, chair of the advisory board at Niagara College and former CEO of the OMERS Sponsors Corporation, and Holly Catalfamo, co-ordinator of the honours Bachelor of Business Administration program at the college, highlight four biases and barriers women have to overcome at work in The Invisible Rules.

The first is the need to keep proving themselves again in a way that men don’t have to. Women tend to be offered fewer opportunities for advancement than men, given the male bosses typically making such choices tend to hire based on familiarity, comfort, chemistry and masculine perceptions of what a leader looks like. And when women are given opportunities for advancement, their efforts and the outcomes achieved are often compared to a higher standard than men. Play it again, Sam. Prove it again, Samantha.

Secondly, women walk a tightrope, whether to present themselves as pseudo-males willing to assert themselves more aggressively than women traditionally have at work or whether to emphasize their nurturing collaborative skills. If they consistently display communal behaviours they can be dismissed as passive, indecisive and lacking leadership traits, but if they are too aggressive they will be dismissed as cold and “bitchy.”

A third challenge is the “maternal wall” – the negative impact that enhanced family obligations can have on their career, even elbowing them out of the leadership pipeline. The women interviewed did make it to higher ranks and indeed found that maternity leave gave them a sense of purpose and meaning. But the wall is formidable. It even affects those who don’t have kids and thus might be viewed as abnormal or excessively masculine.

Finally, a tug of war occurs when women try to determine based on their own needs and expectations whether to embrace or reject the masculine traditions that are typically assigned to leadership. At one end of the spectrum the authors see the tomboys, women who talk hockey, play golf, and exude confidence, while at the other end the women who try to preserve traditional notions of femininity at the workplace. “To play the game or not to play the game: That’s the question!” they write.

True leaders can help women through those obstacles. In Glass Half-Broken, Colleen Ammerman, director of the Harvard Business School Gender Initiative, and Boris Groysberg, a professor at the business school, stress the important role men can play as allies, rather than remaining absent from the struggle to expand professional opportunity for women. But they go beyond broad organizational initiatives to those actions individual leaders – men and women such as you – can adopt in their own bailiwick, managing for gender equity and inclusion.

It starts by developing an objective lens for recruiting and rewarding employees. Don’t assume you are objective. Don’t assume any bias training – formal or informal – has actually taken hold. Study your recent hiring and promotional decisions to see if they are gender-skewed. Adopt evaluative methods in hiring and promotion that minimize the role of gut feel and provide an objective framework.

Supplement that by ensuring you are providing developmental opportunities and feedback on an equitable basis. There is a tendency to mentor or sponsor people like yourself. Who is actually getting stretch assignments? Are you declining to offer them to a woman because you don’t want to burden her – not giving her the opportunity to decide? Track who you mentor and advocate for. Challenge your assumptions about employees’ preferences and aptitudes.

Inclusive managers also foster a culture where everyone matters. “Interpersonal exclusion – both subtle and blatant – was the most consistent theme that emerged in our survey of executive women,” they note, from not inviting women to play golf to not wandering into their office and chatting with them about issues or seeking opinions, as happens with men on the team.

Welcome and take advantage of diverse perspectives. “In our survey of women executives, one consistent characteristic of noninclusive managers, both male and female, was an unwillingness or an inability to listen to and take advantage of others’ views and insights,” they write. Leading a diverse team, you might be inclined to minimize differences to forge unity but in fact it’s best to truly welcome different perspectives and opinions.

Finally, they urge you to champion diversity, equity and inclusion as values and aspirations. Be explicit about your commitment to diversity and show you mean it by treating activities and projects related to diversity as legitimate and important. If there are employee resource groups, support them. Pay dues for your staff in women’s professional organizations. Set concrete goals for equitable and inclusive practices and hold your team accountable.

Together, those ideas sharpen the focus on barriers women face and offer guidance to managers on how individually they can help in their own team to provide greater equity and inclusion.

Quick hits

  • Maybe the prime fact to keep in mind about the return to the office is that for many people it will seem like a cut in pay, as they assume commuting costs, perhaps face more child-care costs, and deal with wardrobes and cosmetics. “The great move to return to the office will make Murphy of Murphy’s Law fame look like a wild-eyed optimist,” warns consultant Wally Bock.
  • A study of 161 organizations found those that were more decentralized had more happiness and energy.
  • The good news: Employee engagement in Canada increased in 2020, according to a Gallup survey. The bad news: Only one in five employees are engaged at work (compared to one in three in the U.S.)

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