By Carielle Somers
Just short of 40, Birgit held together a home with three children, an overbearing husband she adored. She spent four years as a senior manager in the controlling department of a Canadian financial services company and wanted only one thing. Her boss’ job.
Almost as quickly as she admitted it, I found myself suppressing the word “audacious” that didn’t sound at all like a compliment. I pacified myself about being only human and balanced guilt and disbelief as I let the rest avalanche through my mind. “Wow. Who does she think she is? The cat’s whiskers?”.
Unconscious bias is real. It’s especially real for women like Birgit, who walk the corridors of their offices believing themselves to be free of it when its impact is pervasive and felt. Well known research on (racial) bias featuring methodically rigorous Implicit Association Tests (IAT) has taken by millions in the early 2000’s. While the test was ambiguous it was meant to measure bias that was simply covert, known to one and yet concealed from researchers. Astoundingly the majority of individuals, who took the test did not reveal they were more biased than they realized but that they were more biased than they wanted others to know (Banks & Ford, 2008).
I asked Birgit why she assumed demolishing his role would help her achieve success? And she sternly pointed out that there wasn’t another way she was aware of. “It’s just how things are done here. Isn’t that how the universe works?” She pondered out loud. “The destruction of a comfortable construct to make way for another”. She was right in some way but it seemed a little brutal.
Then it struck me. Birgit’s workplace had most men in senior roles and women in mid-level to junior administration positions. “Positions of collaboration and low risk” she called them. Birgit didn’t want her boss’ job. She wanted to be him. Being (like) a man was the secret code that let her into their sandpit. I fought the image of Birgit in charcoal suits and dark stubble playing in the sand.
In a recent paper on the supply of women into senior positions, Goodall and Osterloh argue that the biggest effect that prevents the supply of women is the decision to enter competitions (Goodall & Osterloh, 2015). Women experience higher identity costs associated with competing against men especially since most women of Birgit’s generation are socialized to compete implicitly. While the light at the end of the tunnel seems dim, it’s not all that gloomy as it sounds. The facts about gender gaps with respect to salaries, promotion and positions are well known. However, in educational achievement today there is a reverse gender-gap. In most countries not only are there higher shares of females compared with male graduates, but at school, girls outperform boys in most subjects (Goldin, Katz & Kuziemko 2006).
“So what about the family?” I was doing it again. This time on purpose.
“Why would I fight my own family?” She pierced. While I enjoyed quizzing her, I realized Birgit had an epiphenic reaction. The competition was war to her and her armour had worn her down. “My family isn’t working against me. The inability of my peers to see me as a capable contender is toxic to my progress.” Birgit’s response was typical but what she seemed in denial about is the identity costs that society still held her responsible for. Both male and female senior managers are subject to this conflict but because women traditionally bear the heaviest load of “family work” in most cultures, men face fewer – and different — role incongruities and conflicts than do women. Women must resolve these conflicts in several contexts: Preserving the degrees of career and geographic mobility that the path to top leadership may require; sorting priorities at different points in time between the careers in a dual career family unit; dealing with the consequences of career interruptions that are more common among female managers than among male managers; and managing childbirth and child-rearing, neither of which is a traditional male role. (Schipani, Dworkin et. al, 2008).
It was an uneventful, grey afternoon when we spoke in 2010 but that day opened our eyes to a conflict rooted in historical, corporate rigor being shaken today by disruption everywhere you look. Despite the long line of mentors and staying a rough course for 3 years, Birgit felt compelled to seek promise elsewhere only to find the new ceiling she had hit was even more unfamiliar that the last. Recognizing that gender parity for most companies involves radical change, we were determined to pave the way for a new generation of women leaders.
So what’s a reasonable first step towards this radical move? Over the past few years, we’ve noticed companies that expose their vulnerabilities such as low diversity figures are the ones not afraid to make the problem real. By being vocal about their weaknesses in hiring culture, work and sometimes values they were allowing a new wave of women leaders and entrepreneurs to see what our generation could not – a chance to understand the problem and actively be a part of change. A commitment towards gender parity in the workplace didn’t have to start with a big step but it does need to start now.
Banks, R. R., & Ford, R. T. (2008). (How) Does Unconscious Bias Matter: law, Politics, and Racial Inequality. Emory LJ, 58, 1053.
Goodall, A. H., & Osterloh, M. (2015). Women have to enter the leadership race to win: Using random selection to increase the supply of women into senior positions.
Kuziemko, I., Katz, L., & Goldin, C. (2006). The Homecoming of American College Women: The Reversal of the College Gender Gap.
Dworkin, T. M., Kwolek-Folland, A., Maurer, V., & Schipani, C. A. (2008). Pathways to Success for Women Scientists in Higher Education in the US. In Gender Equality Programmes in Higher Education (pp. 69-86). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
Carrielle Somers is a marketer, speaker and author for The LEAD Network. She is an evangelist for women’s advancement and a key proponent in Metro AG’s women’s network. Prior to Metro AG, Carrielle held several roles in marketing and technology enablement including Director, Marketing Programmes at CoreMedia and Manager, Go-To-Marketing at MTS Allstream. She has also held volunteer roles at the Vanier Incarceration Centre for Women, Toronto and the Integration Program for Asylum-Seekers in North Germany. Carrielle graduated with an MBA from the Open University in Strategy and a Masters of Commerce from the University of Pune.
Gender Parity Musings in the Workplace is a three part series of water cooler narrative and gender research on the daily struggles that women face seeking opportunities to develop and succeed. These stories of junior to mid-level women offer leaders an understanding of what to consider when attracting, retaining and advancing inclusion in the workplace. The LEAD Network’s vision is a diverse workforce where both men and women are enabled to contribute their full potential and lead their organisations to the next level of value creation.