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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C

Opinion The time has come to reframe the gender issue

We have massive opportunities ahead of us, so let’s seize them.

THE TIME HAS come to reframe the gender issue. Sixty percent of the world’s university graduates are women, and women control the majority of consumer goods buying decisions. Women run a bunch of countries and a bunch of companies. Time to shift the discussion away from a lingering women’s problem or an issue of equality and instead focus on this as a massive opportunity.

Instead of more debates about the issues (like pay, parity and promotion), let’s present new solutions: roadmaps to economies and companies that are better balanced, that help leaders understand and benefit from shifting global gender realities. We know what works now – and what doesn’t: so let’s stop fixing the women and start building the leadership skills and organisational cultures that enable balance and tap into the resulting competitive edge.

Smart public and private sector leaders have understood that gender balance delivers better and more sustainable performance. Now there is even enough research to prove it. While the sceptics will spend another decade resisting the trends with demands to prove causality, the best leaders prefer leading the charge to trailing it. So it now makes sense to focus on the leadership competencies that enable certain leaders to build gender-balanced organisations.

Building a gender-balanced organisation takes skill, determination, and courage. It does not come naturally. It must be taught, role modeled and rewarded. That’s what the best companies do. They put the focus and the accountability where change happens: on the leaders who have the power to change the rules of the game.

Here are three that would hugely accelerate change:

1. Build Gender Bilingual Skills

Recognise that most managers and CEOs (both male and female) are totally uneducated in all things gender. That’s why they make embarrassing mistakes, like Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, recently did, suggesting that women don’t need to ask for raises, but should rather trust in the ‘system’. It went embarassingly global and viral, which makes other leaders all the more nervous about addressing the topic. A little coaching would go a long way. Leaders need to learn the data, the differences and the opportunities that await businesses that balance.

Many business leaders around the world that I have worked with have no idea that women are the majority of university graduates – from Sweden to Saudi Arabia. Well-meaning and ethical executives have been told for decades to ignore gender differences (such as different communications styles or career cycles) rather than become skilled in managing them. For the same reason (“only competence counts” is the usual refrain), they aren’t used to thinking that balance may contribute to better performance, innovation and customer connections. Educate them. Develop gender inclusive vocabulary, policies and products. Stop internal, women-only networks – replace them with mixed networks aimed at balancing management, rather than promoting women.

Rebrand all targets so that they aim for balance, (eg, anything between 40% female/60% male or 60% female/40% male), as everyone hates targets for more women (eg, 40% women). Men experience these as deeply unfair, while women are insulted at the idea of having their promotions perceived as target rather than talent-driven.

2. Enforce Transparency

Companies and countries are both still grappling with how to generalise gender balance. The EU has promoted board quotas, now introduced in seven European countries. While the UK, US and Germany resist them by agreeing to self-imposed voluntary targets. This is what the Lord Davies Report tried in the UK, with some success. The challenge is that adding a few non-execs to your board is proving a lot easier than balancing your leadership teams. Recently Google has led Silicon Valley companies in a collective and public recognition that their gender balance is not satisfactory, and published some aggregate statistics.

The corporate world is gradually responding to the pressure for greater transparency on their internal reality, which up to now has been jealously guarded. It would help to come clean. So that we can really compare apples with apples and countries to countries. Rather than legislating quotas, why not impose the publication of companies’ gender balance statistics beyond the visible boards? From the CEO down three levels, for example. In the annual report. That would allow everyone from talented graduates to savvy investors to see which companies are truly – and sustainably – gender balancing. And it would allow men and women who want to work or invest in modern workplaces to be able to identify them. What company will be credibly able to argue against transparency?

Google said it best: “It is hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.” Time for companies to publish their gender data, by level – and for governments to make them to do so.

3. Shift from Maternity to Parental Leave

Apple offers four months of paternity leave. Sweden, the best-in-class country on most things gender, offers the world the model of parental leave – to be freely chosen between two parents. Germany followed suit. But Sweden added the essential kicker: fathers have a four-month minimum that they use, or lose. That is smart public policy.

This is a distant dream in most countries today, but it is the inevitable and necessary direction in which the gender-quake of the 20th century is leading us. Women will only be leaders in the numbers we need, when men are encouraged – and celebrated – for becoming fathers. Still too rare are the countries that have recognised that most children have two parents, not one mother. And most companies and managers still struggle with letting men take parental leave without it hurting their careers.

There are few areas where the laws are so out of sync with the people, who are increasingly opting for the obvious alternative: not to have any children at all. See the tumbling birth statistics globally, from Germany to Japan. But companies and business leaders don’t have to wait for governments on this one. They can lead the way. They can change their own minds and policies, and the way they talk about flexibility, careers and family responsibilities. Apple has, others will follow. It makes cents.

The world is living through one of its most historic and peaceful revolutions: the gradual rebalancing of the genders’ social, educational and economic power. We have never seen anything like it before – no wonder it is a bit confusing. This change, and its consequences, need to be better understood. It is altering the life of almost every man, woman and child on the planet. It yields opportunities, competitive advantage and, I would argue, happiness to smart countries, companies and couples. Simple, powerful and progressive. A miracle waiting to happen. But like so many bridges between men and women, you have to want it – and build it – before you can enjoy the benefits.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is the founder and CEO of 20-first consulting – Building Gender Balanced Businesses. Avivah will be the Keynote Speaker at the conference ‘Investing in Talent – Promoting Gender Balanced Leadership’, which will be held in Dublin Castle on 25 November. This conference is being jointly organised by the Department of Justice and Equality and Ibec and is receiving assistance from the European Union under its PROGRESS programme (2007-2013). The conference will be opened by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, TD, and will be closed by the Minister of State with responsibility for New Communities, Culture and Equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, TD. #genderbalance

Opinion: We can’t afford NOT to invest in childcare and early education

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox
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