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Gender Intelligence – Seven Strategies that are Transforming Companies

There’s a different conversation taking place today between men and women in the workplace—a transformational conversation that’s altering the landscape of business and how we’re addressing gender diversity.

This article is excerpted from Barbara Annis and Dr. Keith Merron’s new book, GENDER INTELLIGENCE: Breakthrough Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Improving Your Bottom Line (HarperBusiness, May 2014).

What adds momentum to this new dialogue are dynamic shifts in thinking around gender differences in the workplace. Organizations are realizing the value in becoming more gender diverse—not for the sake of compliance or fairness, but for greater innovativeness, better decision-making, and higher levels of productivity.

Study upon study shows that companies—through greater innovativeness, better decision-making, and team productivity—are increasing their profit margins by as much as 35 percent and return on equity by 16 percent. The mantra for an increasing number of companies today is, “the greater the gender balance in leadership, the greater the profitability.”

Building on this realization, successful organizations today are those with leaders who see the value in gender diversity and who have committed to change that goes beyond equality in numbers. The leaders will be those who look for equality in value and diversity of thought—we call this Gender Intelligence. Gender Intelligence is for leaders who want to change their cultures, break old patterns of behavior, and awaken their organizations to the possibilities of the future.

Toward that aim, in our work of 27 years, we have found leaders who transform organizations to become gender intelligent are doing so based on seven key breakthrough insights. These seven are the most stirring breakthrough insights for leaders and their organizations that have emerged from the totality of our work over the past 27 years. These new, fresh insights are transforming organizational cultures and business practices and improving the bottom line performance of companies across the globe.

1. It’s not HR’s job alone

Since the 1970s, governments have legislated for gender diversity and the task has unfailingly fallen to human resource departments, as a result, leaders have overlooked its strategic value. This is one of the major reasons why after 40 years of laws, quotas, diversity training, and legal expenses, there’s been no appreciable change in the level and impact of women in leadership.

But there are increasingly more leaders who see gender diversity as a catalyst for new ideas, better business decisions, and increased profits. They’re making blended leadership a strategic imperative, and not simply for the sake of compliance or because it’s a good thing to do.

2. It’s not about the numbers

Gender equality through numbers alone will not change a corporate culture. It’s a rose-colored objective driven by a faulty set of beliefs that women will naturally ascend the corporate ladder.

Do we see any transformation around us though? The percentage of women in leadership has hardly changed since the
1990s. And the women who do make it to the top are usually the ones who can adapt and survive in a male-oriented environment.

Many talented women who can’t or don’t care to fit in, soon leave, discouraged by a culture that doesn’t value how they choose to think and act. When there is an emphasis on just the numbers, men often feel resentful for being passed over for promotions while women often feel like tokens.

3. Meritocracies based on gender sameness are not true meritocracies

In many ways, the measures of performance in most organizations unconsciously ensure a glass ceiling. Seeking comfort in sameness, organizations look for a specific style of leadership—behaviors that align more closely with the nature of men and their style of leadership. Whether in managing projects, making decisions, leading teams, or closing deals, women will often get to the same results, and often improve the outcomes, using a different approach than men.

Leaders today are beginning to recognize that in order for a meritocracy to work effectively, the metrics must be based on how men and women uniquely think and act. Differences need to be valued in order for meritocracies to be truly performance-based.

4. There’s a science to our difference

Even in the face of decades of irrefutable scientific evidence, there are many who continue to believe that gender differences in attitudes and behaviors are purely the result of socialization. In the past 25 years, an avalanche of research that shows that differences in brain functioning and therefore behaviour is not just the result of social forces, but a result also of some powerful innate differences in the brains of men and women.

Both nature and nurture play a significant role in a person’s identity and development, and to believe that gender differences all or predominately stem from social influence is to deny our basic nature. When we maintain the opinion that men and women are the same, we make assumptions about how easy it should be for each gender to think and act the same, and we under-value and often dismiss the differences when they show up.

Many leaders of companies today are becoming more aware of differences in brain physiology and chemistry, and rather than trying to unnaturally force fit women into a male style of thinking and acting, they’re mining the value in the differences. This is the essence of Gender Intelligence.

5. It’s not about fixing women

Many organizations today send their high potential women off for leadership training and sales management programs, have them role play their assertiveness in conflict-resolution workshops, and on and on, all helping women leaders learn how to fit in with men in order to survive and advance.

We recently surveyed senior leaders from three technology firms, and two accounting firms on what prompted their interest in gender diversity, the types of programs they were running to meet their quotas, and how successful they were in achieving those goals. These were the programs they cited as not working and the reasons why.

While each program may be somewhat useful in and of itself, the totality does not produce the desired result. This is primary due to the mindsets that create these programs, which, with the best of intentions, are not seeing the environment that women are coming into. The programs are focused mostly on fixing the women, as opposed to an emphasis on changing the culture so that it is more gender intelligent.

Many of the leadership and management programs, policies, and practices that are still in use today were formed back when workforces were comprised almost entirely of men. Those approaches do not work today.

And yet, the marketplace has undergone dramatic change. For example, women today dominate purchase decisions in virtually every consumer category. These changes call for a dramatic change in the initiatives and programs that are developed.

The breakthrough insight is the possibility that the way companies have worked in the past may not be the best way
to work in the future, and that their success in the past is not necessarily a guarantee of success in the future.

6. Gender Intelligence accelerates all diversity

Across the globe, the challenges men and women face in working together and in their personal lives are often identical, right down to the experiences. Culture adds its own layers of influence and learning, but the similarities shared by men and women are universal.

Given that experience, exploring one’s biases is simply not enough. Embracing those hardwired differences is the most powerful diversity of all. Our experience has been that companies that have a better blend of women and men at all levels foster an environment where broader cultural diversity efforts can take root and grow.

7. Fear of stereotyping blocks progress
While the fundamental tenants of diversity have advanced our world, there’s an unintended negative consequence. We’ve become too politically correct and too afraid to talk about our differences.

We see this play out all over the world. Successful business leaders, and educators, out of fear of showing any form of generalization, act gender blind and, as a result, lose their ability to discuss, explore, and maximize the value of gender differences.

The breakthrough insight is being willing to question one’s fundamental beliefs and discover that men and women really are different, that we’re intended to be different, and that there’s a natural complement and power in those differences—if we can only find the courage to call it out, understand it, and work with it.