by Meredith Hinshaw-Chaney
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, gender in the workplace specialist Avivah Wittenberg-Cox asks, “Is it OK for a bunch of men to lead a ‘women in the workforce’ initiative?” To the ire of feminists, Trump invited the (male) CEOs of Walmart and EY to headline a symposium on women in the workplace, although he also admittedly included several women CEOs to hear their thoughts on “other business issues.”
“Gender diversity is not a women’s issue. How can you talk about gender if only one gender is involved?” – Phil Grosch, Partner and Digital Services Leader, PwC Canada
Wittenberg-Cox argues, rightly in my opinion, that the discussion of gender should not be one-sided. According to Wittenberg-Cox, gender equality is a “huge political, economic, and social opportunity” and also an “important business issue,” one that three-quarters of the country’s CEOs consider high on their corporate agenda. As well it should: A 2016 study from EY and the Peterson Institute for International Economics asserts that gender diversity at senior levels increases financial returns. Further, according to Kelly Joscelyne, global chief talent officer at Mastercard, “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”
As a result, women’s initiatives have popped up like mushrooms all over the corporate landscape, aiming to increase the number of women serving in leadership roles. Indeed, 70 percent of companies say they are committed to diversity. But, when it comes to execution, the numbers paint a different picture, causing many to accuse leadership initiatives as nothing more than a form of lip(stick?) service: 55 percent of employees don’t think their companies are doing what it takes to improve diversity outcomes. According to a 2016 report produced by McKinsey and LeanIn.org analyzing data from more than 130 companies, women remain underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline, with only 24 percent of women serving in senior-vice-presidential positions. So, despite the top-level commitment to diversity in leadership roles, agents “on the ground” either don’t get the memo, don’t agree with the policies, or don’t know how to put diversity initiatives into action, resulting in stagnating statistics showing women lagging behind at every career stage.
One company at least seems to be walking the walk: PricewaterhouseCoopers. The company has made it a global goal to reach a 50:50 gender ratio of partnership admissions by 2020. It’s in no small part thanks to Phil Grosch, founder of the firm’s six-month empowerment program for women, meant to foster professional support for talented women to increase retention rates at the mid-career level. According to Grosch, “gender differences balance a team out and bring more thoughtfulness and empathy into the equation.”
And here’s where I start to lose my enthusiasm. While well-intentioned, is it me or does this miss the point? It’s great that companies want to increase diversity in leadership positions. But they’re going about it in a way that reinforces the idea that there are essential “male” and “female” characteristics in individuals. Yes, we should embrace difference, but under this paradigm, only when it falls within the cisgendered dichotomy of male and female. For years, women were told to act more like men in order to be treated equally (and then were penalized for being “bossy” when acting upon that same advice). They were told to how to dress, how to talk, how to behave, in order to be seen as equal—to be more male (and thus successful). Men were devalued for being “effeminate” or passive. Now, as our culture shifts and 50 percent of the workforce are women, we are now elevating the value of “female” traits such as “empathy.” But where does this leave transgendered individuals and all those who do not identify as cis? How do we acknowledge encultured / socialized difference without reifying the idea that “empathy” is essentially and naturally a “female” trait?
Valuing the essentialism of a gendered trait doesn’t move the needle on gender issues. It’s just the same coin, different side.
 Statistics for women of color are even worse. “As the most underrepresented group in the corporate pipeline,” they comprise 20 percent of the population and only 3 percent of c-suite positions. Source: http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/women-in-the-workplace-2016