She told me an interesting story: “We’ve got a target of 35 percent females employed at TGL, which, when you think about it, is really not that ambitious. But we’ve been stuck at 30 percent for the last two years. I’ve tried everything, Siobhan, but I don’t know how to move the dial on these diversity stats. Any ideas?”
“What have you done so far?” I inquired.
Myra took a quick breath. “We’ve developed a compelling business case for why diversity matters, we’ve invested in putting more than two hundred leaders through an intensive two-day diversity and inclusion training program, and we’ve implemented a best practice mentoring program to help women take charge of their careers. But nothing has changed. Here, look.”
Myra pulled her iPad out of her handbag and popped open reports full of detailed company statistics and quantitative data. As I scanned the numbers, I noted that women filled 70 percent of TGL’s support staff roles, while men performed 70 percent of the more senior leadership roles (from the CEO to front-line managers). I looked up at Myra. “You can talk about diversity until the cows come home, but if you don’t add more women to your leadership roles, even if you hit your 35 percent target, those added women will be working in support and administration. I’ve got one suggestion. You need to uncover the underlying issues and the patterns that drive behavior in your company.”
I went on to explain that Myra seemed to be addressing symptoms, rather than the underlying pattern. To reach the diversity target, the executives at TGL needed to see the unwritten rule that had created the current gender gap. “You’ve done a good job at one level,” I said. “However, it seems that you’ve been addressing the behaviors rather than patterns. Yes, you’ve accomplished a lot by building women’s confidence, coaching young females to take charge of their careers, and helping leaders identify unconscious biases, but you have not tackled the deeply embedded TGL pattern that places men in leadership roles and women in support roles. This implicit, unwritten rule has kept your dial at 30 percent.”
Myra’s struggles did not surprise me, because the particular pattern she wanted to change affects not only individual organizations, but society as a whole. To progress toward her 35 percent goal, she needed to wrestle with a societal problem that guided gender attitudes at a national level. You can trace the unwritten rules that confer power on men and place women in subservient roles to the dawn of the human race. Asking any HR manager to change that history is a tall order indeed. You know me; I like to draw diagrams.