They Used to Call it “Sexist”: Taking action against systemic gender bias

I’ve been in the business world long enough to remember the days when a person or organization that didn’t treat women fairly was referred to as “sexist”.  This term took a wide path; be it a lack of promoting women to more senior roles, paying them fairly, making inappropriate comments, or worse.  Although the terminology has advanced from this simple reference, the journey to reaching gender parity has made far less progress.

Statistics and research findings are readily available to support a lack of gender parity; be it the inequity of women in senior roles, Board of Directors positions, equal pay, or investment capital for female led companies.  While some have approached the issue with a musing of “we must do more” or claim that “mentoring young women and girls is the answer”, such commentary is woefully inadequate and off the mark.

As a former executive and venture capitalist still active in the industry, I have spent more time than most working in traditionally male dominated fields and certainly know what it’s like to be the only woman in the room; doing so has never bothered me.  I am bothered, however, by the relative lack of progress that has been made in advancing women to a point of parity in a range of senior areas over the last quarter of a century.  I recall unequal pay and the “glass ceiling” being regular topics of conversation when I was completing my university degree, which was some time ago.  In 2019, these issues are still very much a reality.

Given that there is an abundance of women who are qualified to hold executive roles, run companies, serve on Boards, and seek investment capital, the lack of progress is not due to insufficient supply; something else is at play.  Although there are certainly exceptions, this suggests the presence of a “systemic bias” that has not allowed women to progress as equally as men in some areas.  An example is as simple as filling a Board or senior executive vacancy by utilizing a “who do we know?” approach to identify possible candidates, drawn from the current members of the group and their network; we know that the majority of these are men.  The result, too often, is a disproportionate candidate pool that under-represents some groups, as well as inclusion of those who are less than ideally qualified.

Changing this reality requires more than wishing it away or “giving it time”; tangible action is needed on various levels.  Whatever the vantage point, there’s a role to be played in eradicating systemic gender bias:

  • If you are a member of a Board of Directors:
    • Refrain from relying solely on the “who do we know?” approach to fill senior roles and cast a wider net when seeking candidates. Ensure that the network that is approached has a balanced gender mix and engage an experienced advisor to draw candidates more broadly (don’t forget to request information about their diversity mandate).
    • Ask the business leader for a copy of the Company’s diversity policy (if this is met with a blank stare, engage a qualified advisor to help), set milestones, and monitor progress.
    • Ensure that Board and Committee meetings are kept at a professional level and that proceedings are respectful and comfortable for all. Diverse perspectives actually improve a group; studies have shown that the presence of women in corporate leadership generates better results.
    • If you see gender or any other type of bias, call it out.  A Board represents an important part of an organization’s leadership, and if this represents an area of discomfort, think twice about holding the role.
  • If you are a CEO or Senior Executive:
    • Ensure that the Company has a diversity policy in place and that equity is present, in terms of compensation and access to senior roles. If this is not the case and/or “we can’t find qualified women” seems to be a common complaint, seek advisory assistance.
    • When implementing strategies to enhance diversity, ensure that the approach that is being taken isn’t “tone deaf” to those that it is meant to help.  Too often, poor or less than thoughtful implementation results in the process backfiring, leaving a situation worse than it was in the first place.  Seek feedback from those who are skilled in the area of diversity initiatives and/or a sample of the target group, in advance, to avoid costly and embarrassing mistakes.
    • Track diversity progress and recognize that an organization that is gender balanced, viewed as “fair”, and comprised of diverse views will lead to better performance and be more appealing in the marketplace. Companies that achieve this in a meaningful way can showcase their accomplishments, while others face the prospect of being unfavourably labeled and less attractive to qualified candidates.
    • Remember that a company’s diversity reflects on its leadership in the Executive office.  Ask the hard questions: are you proud of what has been achieved in this regard during your tenure?
  • If you are responsible for managing the human resources function:
    • It is incumbent upon you to ensure that this functional area is managed fairly, regardless of whether you are a human resources professional or a manager who has been assigned this responsibility (such as a CFO). Where additional knowledge or expertise is required in order to do so, request it.
    • If the Company lacks a diversity policy, equitable compensation, workplace respect, or has other problems, it is not acceptable to stay the course and relegate the situation to a talk track of “it’s always been this way”. Meet with the business leader to discuss these areas and make an assessment of where progress can be made.  Be sure to seek professional guidance in situations that are truly unacceptable.
  • If you are a human resources advisor or consultant:
    • Have a diversity policy that guides recruitment and selection activities and be prepared to educate those who view this approach as “giving unqualified people jobs”. In many, if not most cases, there is a diverse range of qualified candidates.
    • “Walk the talk” with candidates and ensure that a diverse range is contacted on a regular basis. Situations where women, for example, are added to a candidate database so that it can be promoted as “diverse”, only to never be contacted or put forward for a role, is a legitimate complaint.  Rest assured that word travels quickly through the very network that is being sought.
  • If you are a business association or organization:
    • Although it might seem dated to make this statement, associations and organizations that have traditionally been targeted at men also need to walk the talk when it comes to diversity. Adopting a “we need to find more women” mantra, without doing the work to make a service offering diverse or to actively engage female participants is unacceptable.
    • In this type of situation, women are left with the perception of “being on a list” or having been “hoodwinked” to demonstrate an organization’s progressiveness, with no real intention of engaging them in a meaningful way. Not only does this represent a service delivery failure, it is also unprofessional and biased.
  • If you are a staff member:
    • In the event of inequitable treatment of others, speak up. Initial referral points can include a human resources officer, through a corporate “whistleblower” or code of conduct policy, or an employee assistance program.  A lack of respect or professionalism should not be tolerated.

And, if you are a qualified woman (and there are many of you!), the last word is for you:

If you are not being treated fairly, speak up; If you are qualified, but not given an opportunity, show up; When an organization proves to be a “dead end”, move along.  There are places that will value your contribution, progressive leaders that you can learn from, organizations that will promote your talent and ability, equally. Seek them out and pursue what they have to offer.

Recognize that the problem is not you and those who are stuck in the days of “sexism” don’t (and won’t) appreciate your ability.  For so many years, the future has been regarded as distant and aspirational, but in many aspects of our world, it is now.  Never forget that you are not alone; numbers brings comfort, perspective, strength, and a better path forward.

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Jenifer Bartman

Business Advisor| Speaker| Published Author| CBC News Network Weekend Business Panel| Former Venture Capital Executive
Jenifer Bartman
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