Earlier this year, the Peterson Institute for International Economics reported on its study of 22,000 companies around the world. The big takeaway: there is a correlation between a higher number of women in executive leadership positions and an increase in company profitability.
This finding triggered an avalanche of articles in publications like The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, The Financial Times, and Fortune, with headlines like "New proof that more female bosses equal higher profits."
The more I thought about the rapid sharing of these headlines, the less I liked it.
Business leaders in male-dominated industries (practically every industry) are still being encouraged to hire or promote more women with lures of higher profits, lower employee turnover, more ethical operations, you name it. Our industry has been doing this for years.
This is a problem. I believe the way we speak about, write about, and share the accomplishments of women in the media and within our own circles is one of many factors that perpetuates a reality that is largely stagnant and lacking diversity at the top.
In 2016, with incredible women bosses, mentors and owners everywhere we look, at every level, we still hear: "It’s official: women are good for business." We are drowning in evidence that female leadership is as worthy, impactful and profitable as male leadership, and yet, somehow, women’s contributions are still treated as newsworthy.
No such conversation is being had about our male colleagues.
As a longtime business owner and CEO, employer of a 50% women staff, and the proud mother of two hardworking daughters in our industry, the tired, one-sided daily rhetoric is baffling. We continue to hold up women’s leadership as if it’s a magical rainbow unicorn in a big, bad business world. This story is not only exhausting, it’s insidious.
Men’s leadership ability is assumed. Unchallenged. Women are frozen in place as the gender that continues to shock and awe with news of our worth, as if it has never before been demonstrated. Look, a white paper! A focus group! A roundtable! Justification that we are valuable to the organizations we serve, all of it presented as news.
Unsurprisingly, this regurgitation has not produced meaningful change on our executive teams, on our boards or in our creative departments. Are there very encouraging individual examples of change? Absolutely. But looking across the landscape, they are the exception, not the rule.
As several prominent voices in our industry have shown, blatant sexism and tone-deafness exist. We can’t easily control individuals’ ignorance of the issues, however, we can demand smarter thinking and start a conversation change around women and leadership – and here’s how:
Challenge the rhetoric. The New York Times story on the Peterson study opened with this: "Companies pondering the incentives for increased gender diversity in their executive ranks may need to look no further than the bottom line." Challenge words like "incentive" and "proof," and certainly anything that reduces women’s value to helping "the bottom line." It’s easy to write pithy sound bites. It’s harder to think through the message you’re sending with the words you use.
Avoid "check the box" thinking. It’s distressing when people view having a woman on their leadership team as an accomplishment, or say they need to add "a woman’s point of view" to the mix. This is not novel, noble or progressive. Consciously or unconsciously, this is pure tokenism. This is the mark of laziness and lateness. And this still leaves us with male-dominated boards, all-male speaker lineups, biased company policies, a wage gap… Our way of thinking matters.
Ask the right questions. We should, of course, celebrate our colleagues and leaders who happen to be women. I am grateful and honored to have received such recognition over the years. But we should take a critical look at the language we use that keeps men and women separate, different, and therefore not equal. Let’s not allow our conversation to stay fixed on the "Why women leaders?" question. That question has long been answered, and the answer is "Why not?"
Being a woman is not newsworthy. The fact that women are capable, powerful, visionary leaders is a non-topic. It should not come as a surprise. We should be telling our organizations that supporting diversity at the top is imperative, no justification needed.
And that, my friends, is the debate that is truly over.