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Men: Mind the gender gap

Wednesday, July 30, 2014  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Keith Merron

The CEO of a rising company said this to me the other day: "I looked around and there were no women. I didn’t notice it or see it as a problem.”

This could have been me 15 years ago. It also could be thousands of CEOs all over the world. All but one of this CEO’s nine direct-reports are men (the sole woman is head of human resources). Until recently, this didn’t trouble him.

This imbalance is true in a large percentage of companies. The leadership is populated by men. And while women notice it quite clearly, most men do not -- nor do they see a problem. In this particular case, however -- after hearing my partner Barbara Annis give a talk on gender intelligence -- the men-to-women ratio was not only noticed, it became a business problem to be solved.

You’re probably thinking, "No news here, Keith.” But here is what I want to ask: Why is it not noticeable to male leaders in the first place? 

To answer this, you need to get into the mind and experience of men. I grew up in multiple settings that were almost all men. My athletic experience was all men; the women were cheerleaders. We saw women athletes, but thought of them as "quaint.” In business, there were more men then women and as I looked up the corporate ladder, this didn’t seem like a problem; it seemed natural. 
Problem — what problem?

As I consulted with leaders for 15 years of my early career, I didn’t see a problem at all. None of these men raised one question about the scarcity of women around them. We were just doing our jobs with other men doing their jobs. When women showed up, we might have tightened our belly a bit, acted a bit more mature, but didn’t think anything of it. It was a welcome anomaly. 

Men went about business, as did this CEO. Now, however, he understands how the company is limited by the lack of gender diversity.  He recognizes he has an even bigger problem, one faced by male leaders throughout the world: all of the men who report to him are his trusted team members. He chose them personally and cares about them. He is invested in their success, as they are in his. Together, they have formed a strong bond of teamwork and mutual respect.
To replace two or three of these men with women to balance the team would require painful surgery, and he is not going to do that because he knows it will take either manipulation, trickery or force, which would automatically create a fear-driven environment. He is too loyal to his team and they are too loyal to him..

So, he is left with an attrition strategy. When one leaves in a year or two, he will think consciously about replacing him with a woman. But, the folks in the pipeline are 85 percent men and 15 percent women, so the pickings are slim. If he goes outside the company to hire a woman, he would have a challenge on his hands because the company has a "promote from within” policy.
At this rate, it may take years to create a balanced team. And by then, he may leave. Few CEOs stay in their position long enough to actually enact their culture-change strategies.

Fortunately, he is now painfully aware of the problem and he is not ducking it.
If he is like many of the leaders we work with, he will make the change little by little. In the meantime, he will encourage his team to do the same. They will learn to be more gender intelligent in the way they lead and interact with all men and women in the organization.
And if this CEO follows the guidance of my partner and I, we will speed his efforts up with proven strategies. If so, the CEO and his team have a chance to create something quite special — a gender-intelligent organization. 

Dr. Keith Merron is a senior associate at Barbara Annis & Associates, part of a team challenging the prevailing paradigms of business. He is the author of a number of books on leadership and organization life. The most recent is Gender Intelligence: Breakthrough Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Improving Your Bottom Line, co-authored with Barbara Annis. He also writes a column about conscious leadership for Real Leaders.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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