Let's Stop Talking About the Gender Gap
Numerous articles have been written about the Gender Gap in STEM careers, business, political positions and pretty much every other professional context where women are rarely seen in leadership positions.
Much is to be said in favor of raising awareness, but at some point we need to start moving the needle on this issue. There are several barriers, however, that are holding us from moving forward:
1. The terminology is problematic.
Gender Bias, Gender Gap, Gender Equality, Gender Equity, are all stuffy academic terms that alienate the average person from the topic. The conversation becomes formal, bureaucratic, compliance-related instead of a meaningful discussion about an important issue for society.
This is why increasing awareness about the terms may be ineffective. A common corporate behavior calls for launching new initiatives with bogus names such as “Program for Gender Equity”, “Say No to Sexual Harassment”, “Corporate Ecosystem Services Value Chain Analysis”. Employees simply hate it because they know that their company is just covering its behind on their expense.
Tip for the future: When you have to train the trainers (i.e. human resources staff) to understand what the name of the program means, most likely you have to come up with a better name for it.
2. Awareness is simply not enough.
Most of the talented young women I met, were already somewhat aware of the gender bias. This is why they were consciously trying to distance themselves from this “women issue." They have spent their careers fighting for their place and proving that they can do it, “just like any man." They didn’t want their gender to be a factor. They wanted their achievements to be the issue of discussion.
I had to get to the root of the problem instead of talking about generic terms. Two of the common questions I would ask in response to rejection of the topic were:
a) Why should you have to behave like “one of the guys” in order to be accepted, given that you’re not a guy but a girl?
b) It’s so great that you have been given equal access to opportunities, but do you know other women in this company that were discriminated or mistreated because of their gender? Could things be done differently?
c) Do you think your path would have been easier in this company if you were a man?
Once I put these on the table, the real conversation would start (and sometimes would last for hours).
3. There is too much focus on the problem instead of on proven solutions.
There is a tendency to give up before trying, claiming that the system is all messed up: Sexism in banking and venture capital industries doesn’t seem to go away, family-friendly labor practices are a rainbow in the horizon, and women don’t really want to be CEOs anyways.
Maternity seems to be the top-of-mind obstacle (perhaps because the bellies are so visible) and it is in fact a challenging period in a woman's life. However, I really have hard time believing that this is the real issue. Having met several supermoms who had had kids and ran their own companies as well as households, I know it can be done with the right amount of ambition (and of course financial success). Alternatively, I met many liability-free single women who were struggling with career choices. There is no one-fits-all situation out there.
We need much more emphasis on the success stories of individuals and companies who challenged the status-quo so that people would have more reasons to believe and the debate could be richer. We also need to have more honest conversations about the real obstacles to success instead of hiding behind terminology.