29 April 2019

Women aren’t perfect…so why do things go better when they play in the sandpit too?

Here’s the irony of this blog. It’s 2019 and I’m writing about the strengths women bring to management and governance, because they still don’t get the same opportunities as men. At this point I would normally add in an expletive, but I shan’t. The point is, it’s time to celebrate women in the workplace, not resist them.

It’s now common knowledge that having an equitable gender balance in your management, leadership or governance team is going to lift sales, financial performance and profits (as well as create a better workplace). Some are still not up on this phenomenon and if you are one of the few, please stop reading now and check out this article instead.

This blog is not about the outcomes of gender equality. Instead, I’m interested to understand what actually happens to create these outcomes.

I’ve got my own observations on this, but uncharacteristically I actually did some research and asked both men and women the question, “What do women ‘do’, in gender equal team environments, that men don’t?” It was fun watching the responses and it threw up some nice random responses too.

First, some personal history and context. When I put the first ever Collective Intelligence prototype team together 25 years ago, it was made up of seven men and one woman – all Pākehā (I was soooo into diversity back then). In nineteen hundred and ninety four this was not an unusual demographic in the professional world. No one considered this mix odd, or particularly unbalanced, or that it needed rectifying.

Interestingly though, the men were highly respectful of their solo female team member. While she was introverted and very quiet, whenever she spoke the guys shut up and listened intently. Her influence was far greater than any individual man in the team and conclusions were highly influenced by her input (and I don’t think anyone noticed by just how much). Except of course, their magnificent facilitator.

That was 25 years ago and it’s been good to reflect. When I set up Collective Intelligence as a company in 2008, the teams were still dominated by male members initially, but the gender balance was definitely shifting.

A key ingredient in being a facilitator is observing what is going on at any one moment and while it’s tiring, it’s incredibly interesting. In the early years it was just me putting the teams together, setting agendas and facilitating. I became totally immersed in what the teams were up to and what they were achieving, and I noticed an interesting pattern of behaviour.

The quality of dialogue in our all male, or male-dominated teams, was of a lower quality. What do I mean by that? It was less challenging, with fewer options explored. There was a tendency for a small niche of males to set the tone, or direction, and once that was in place the others followed. Meanwhile in the gender-balanced teams, dialogue was more robust, the dialogue was longer and explored a greater range of options.

My key observation was that women were not afraid to go against the tide of popular opinion and call out the obvious / name the elephant in the room / or ask the most basic of questions – is this what we are supposed to be working on? At this point the men would sit back and quickly change tack, without losing face. That’s a key ingredient right there and one that I have never forgotten.

It was then that I knew we needed to quickly change the gender balance in all the teams and today, Collective Intelligence membership sits around 50/50.

So, back to my intrepid unscientific research, “What do women do…?”:

  • I was told by many interviewees that women take a longer-term view when making decisions. They will balance short-term gains with longer-term goals and err towards the latter.
  • Both men and women told me they thought females were more holistic in their decision making. They tended to think of everyone that would be caught up in the choices and considered others, apart from themselves.
  • This one surprised me – women often said they thought they were more grounded and didn’t get too excited about shiny, new ideas.
  • Both men and women said females are the ones who are the keepers of, or the ones who work hard to ensure, that a team’s collective vision is maintained and upheld in a project.
  • Most whom I interviewed stated that women were better influencers.
  • This is subtly different, but women often (and sometimes by default) will be the ones who ensure the manaakitanga role (that’s more than just hospitality, it’s the process of showing respect, generosity and care for others) is fulfilled when groups of people work together.
  • And finally a common, simplistic but relevant opinion, was that women and men formed the yin and yang in a team.

There was a range of random comments that came through that are also worth a mention here:

  • Women found working with domineering, egotistical and pushy women harder than working with men who had the same style. Their tolerance for this behaviour from females was far lower than that coming from a man. Interesting. They believed some ambitious women who strived to get ahead used this style, as it was what they thought worked best. However, once they got into a position of seniority, this style was not productive for women.
  • Some I interviewed said they started off using a masculine style, because that’s all they knew, and then dropped it because it was never really them anyway.
  • On the subject of women working in male-dominated professions, I was told the best way to get ahead was to ignore the male bullshit and just get on with the job. I’m sure there are other views on this.

Personally, I am against having quotas for women on boards and executive teams, as I believe it is demeaning. However, it was pointed out to me a number of times that it’s the most effective way of getting women into positions of authority. I find this disappointing, but hey, if it works then who am I to disagree.

The purpose of this blog is not to pretend I’m an authority on this subject, but to stimulate dialogue and get Boards, CEO’s, Executive teams and anyone who really wants to improve the performance of an organisation to ask, “What barriers are we putting up to stop more women playing in our sandpit?”

Ian Harvey (Harv)


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