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When I recently called for quotas and alternation between men and women at the top of companies to finally achieve gender balance, I drew a range of e-mail responses. Some were vitriolic, from men telling me I was an idiot. But there was an encouraging counterbalance, from men supportive and agreeing with my thesis that 55 years after Betty Friedan effectively launched the dramatic changes in gender relations with The Feminine Mystique, it is way past time for change.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox also responded; she is a Canadian working in Britain as a gender consultant to large multinationals. I thanked her, yet noted that in some ways I was attacking her and her fellow consultants with my claim that corporations had achieved little and we needed more radical, systemic change.

Her response surprised me. It should galvanize us.

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“Current, less radical efforts have proven ineffective and exhausting. So they are actually dangerous. They give managers the opportunity to say, ‘We’ve tried everything,’ when actually they haven’t even started on the core of the issues,” she declared.

When we subsequently talked, her key points revolved around accountability, gender “jaws,” and gender bilingualism.

She was preparing to lead a conference on gender balance for a company a few days later. What she expected, as at most firms, was that the senior leaders would launch the event, proclaim its importance, and then immediately leave, signalling it really wasn’t all that important.

If we are to achieve change, those senior leaders – and everyone in the room – must be accountable for progress. Compensation and promotions should reflect improvements in this area – and the realization that it will pay off for the organizational bottom line. “You need a CEO who is willing to lead on this for five years and make the team accountable for change,” she says.

Gender jaws is a graphic she uses to illustrate that we have made progress at recruiting women for organizations, indeed to the point where some companies now have more women than they realistically should have at the lowest levels. But starting with the first supervisory level and up to the top ranks, we progressively see fewer and fewer of them and more and more men. Imagine an ever-widening gap that looks like wide-open jaws to understand her metaphor.

Companies see the numbers of women – and women in management – rising. And it is, albeit very slowly. But what isn’t being highlighted is the fact that at every level up the pyramid, men are dominant, and that dominance increases with each level, with a yawning gap at the top.

For many years, companies figured the solution to gender imbalance required helping women to have more skills. Then they moved on to seeking diversity. Now there is much talk of being gender-blind.

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All of that is wrong-headed, she insists. The idea of fixing women – assuming they are somehow lacking – should be replaced by fixing the company. What is wrong with your organization that it can’t attract, retain and develop women, who are the majority of educated talent in the world today? It’s the company, stupid.

Diversity treats women as just another minority when they are the majority of university graduates and the majority of consumers. Being gender-blind – treating everyone the same – means that men in power treat everyone like men. But women and men are not the same. Leaders must be bilingual, treating men and women differently.

Gender-bilingual organizations and managers develop the skills to understand the differences between men and women so that they are able to effectively understand, communicate with and develop every employee and similarly deal effectively with every customer.

“When companies invest in China, Russia, or Brazil, they know they need to learn the language and culture of the market they are targeting. In a century where women have become the dominant talent pool and the dominant market makers, why aren’t more companies eager to learn the language and culture of women and how it differs from those of men?” Ms. Wittenberg-Cox asked in her 2014 book Seven Steps to Leading a Gender-Balanced Business.

This will be difficult for that first group who wrote me: Men. Some are furious, feeling under attack. But some are hopeful, wanting equality, because of their ideals or, more pragmatically, the enhanced opportunity for their daughters and granddaughters (and the organization they work for). But we won’t get there with timid efforts. Those have, indeed, exhausted us all. From the outside, I have called for quotas, self-imposed by organizations. From the inside, she wants accountability and gender bilingualism, to end our unbecoming gender jaws.

Cannonballs

  • There are plenty of men who mentor and champion women, says Sarah Robb O’Hagan, CEO of Flywheel Sports, and you can learn from them. When you see a woman with drive and raw potential, bet on her. If she fails at some point, don’t let her give in to her fears; challenge her to come back stronger. And you don’t have to be her boss to champion her; consider being a first and avid follower.
  • Men are more inclined to join classic hierarchical organizations while women are drawn to team-based flat organizations with a strong emphasis on group collaboration and reward, a study found. With hierarchy more prominent in traditional corporations, that suggests women are less likely to want to rise in them and men who do will be more likely to keep them from changing, says researcher Nigel Nicholson, a professor at The London Business School.
  • A study of female CEOs shows they don’t expect much support – at work or at home.

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