The Right Way to Tackle Gender Bias

Despite proof that companies with women in leadership significantly outperform peers, the approach to diversity is all wrong.

What is the difference between Sheryl Sandberg, Melinda French Gates, Cinderella and Elsa from Frozen?

Well, each is worth billions, each commands an immense global platform and each has dedicated her life to capturing the hearts and minds of girls and inspiring their dreams. Whether she knows how to code or whether she has magic powers, those are distinctions without a difference.

In fact, these four figures are all the same: They are princesses.

What I mean by that is we have changed the look and feel of the characters put forth for girls to admire, but we haven’t moved past the stage of fueling fantasies to the stage of creating change. We gave the princesses a makeover, but we didn’t address the core issue.

We are solving the wrong problem.

We decided we wanted girls to embrace heroines who are strong and fearless and can do anything boys can do. We want girls to admire women who code and who are scientists and gymnasts and world leaders. To put it bluntly, we want to see girls dress up as Olympic gymnast Simone Biles or Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky for Halloween instead of as Disney princesses Ariel or Belle. If we succeed, if fairies and mermaids are a thing of the past, we will still be in exactly the same place: asking ourselves why women aren’t leading companies; why girls aren’t pursuing careers in technology; and why, when they graduate from college, women enter the workforce at the same rate as men but leave it at a much higher rate.

Sandberg and French Gates are shining examples of people we should admire and attempt to emulate. They are making tremendous contributions to everything they become involved in. Gates is literally eradicating diseases and lifting entire populations out of poverty. I do not mean to demean her or Sandberg or to devalue the work they do. But becoming them is just about as unattainable as becoming a real-life Disney princess, and we should recognize that.

Research published by and McKinsey in 2015 concludes that, at the current rate of change, it will be more than 100 years before we see equality in the representation of women in corporate leadership. The technology industry alone spent a combined half a billion dollars or more on gender bias training, and it resulted in no measurable change whatsoever. Enrollment in technology majors at Stanford rose as much as 93%, but the number of women graduating from those majors dropped from 40% to 18%.

The 2016 update to the study concludes that employees are not convinced that gender diversity is an imperative, despite compelling data demonstrating that companies with women in leadership significantly outperform their peers. Perhaps most important is the stark assertion that men and women are not having the same experiences at work; this impedes women from developing as leaders and from accessing the opportunities that will get them promoted.

The conversations we are having and the training we are sponsoring is not working to create change. Women will not pursue careers in technology, will not stay in those careers and will not be promoted into leadership positions in those careers if we continue to spend our time, energy and money on efforts we have proven will not make a difference in their experiences at work.

The companies whose leaders today decide to side-step the need to eradicate hidden gender bias, who decide to stop worrying about whether princesses are strong enough, who figure out how to inspire women to bring their ideas to the conversation and to contribute their perspectives in the innovation lab will not only benefit from improved business results but will be the beacon that draws the most talented women leaders to join them.

There are no princesses here.

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