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Why Women Need More Than Just a Seat at the Table

Updated: Apr 7

Every year for International Women's Day and Month, we discuss the need for action on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, specifically focusing on gender inequality. Some progress has been made in the past few years, but there is still much to do. 

In today's article, I offer five potentially controversial viewpoints on how we can stop, reflect, and rethink our efforts for gender equality in the workplace.

Getting women a seat at the table is not enough. We need senior leaders to be true allies for inclusion. We need to re-think and re-design our ways of working. We need better tables.

This article was partly inspired by my interview with the inspirational Kimberley Abbott, founder and CEO of Vested Impact on The Leadership Project podcast. Her words stick with me every day. 

I also draw on the fantastic TED talks of Lilly Singh and Sheryl Sandberg

You can catch an excerpt from Kim's full interview here:

Diversity & Equity are useless without Inclusion.

The push for diversity and equity in the workplace over the past decade has been admirable. We are now seeing many companies take concrete action to address underrepresentation and gender pay gaps. To be clear, there is so much more to do, and we need more velocity, but the action is there, and the momentum is building.

A key promise of diversity lies in diversity of thought. When we have people with diverse backgrounds and experiences around the table, we enable more robust ideation and problem-solving, leading to stronger organisations and teams. Diversity is much broader than a gender issue, but there is no doubt that gender equality and representation are pivotal.

However, diversity is useless unless we create workplaces where women's voices are heard. Diversity in ideation is useless if the ideas raised are not heard or immediately discounted.

This scene repeats itself all too often in meeting rooms around the globe. A female leader will bring up a key and well-thought-out idea or suggestion, only for more dominant voices to overshadow and even talk over the female leader. Ten minutes later, a dominant male voice may even bring up the same or similar idea, and all of a sudden, the focus shifts to that male leader, and the idea is heard. To put it bluntly, this has to stop.

Stop the numbers game and tokenism

I know this is going to be controversial, and not everyone will agree with it. I feel we may need to put a stop to the numbers game. Measuring gender balance has served a purpose. It has helped us raise awareness of an unacceptable situation in society and organisations. 

However, it also came with the baggage of perceived tokenism. If a female leader at a table is perceived as being there to meet a quota, this instantly disempowers her. Implicit bias kicks in, and people start to subconsciously question her appointment, including the female leader herself.

We need a new model. A model where:

  • We still raise awareness of gender imbalance

  • We maintain and increase the momentum in closing the gap and

  • Where it is clear (explicitly and implicitly) that the female leader was appointed on merit AND to drive a rich diversity of background and experience in the team.

Inclusion is not assimilation.

For decades, it was perceived that the only way for a female leader to be successful was to be more like the men in the room. We saw women wearing power suits and adapting to the existing environment.

This assimilation flies in the face of the reason for diversity in the first place. For diversity to thrive, we need people (of all backgrounds) to show up as their authentic selves. If people constantly play a preconceived role of "who they should be" rather than "who they are," it is completely counterproductive to the diversity we are striving for.

All generalisations are wrong, but some are useful (a bastardisation of the famous George Box quote)Sheryl Sandberg's TED talk highlighted a great example of this challenge. We know the statistics show that men (on average) overestimate their abilities, and women under-sell themselves. This has, without doubt, strongly contributed to gender balance issues, including underrepresentation and the gender pay gap. Rather than asking women to adjust and be "more like men", we need to consider how we need to adapt as societies, cultures, and organisations in the knowledge that this disparity exists. 

Stop the favouritism.

In the early days of the DEI movement, we saw a proliferation of favouritism in many workplaces. 

Many companies identified high potential young women leaders and invested heavily in their development. It is possible that this was necessary for a period of time. We needed proactive action to break inertia and get moving. These young women could be highlighted as ambassadors of change, inspire others, and drive the message home. 

The issue is that this, in many cases, created an air of favourtism for the select individuals. Favouritism can lead to cynicism, jealousy, and counter-productively a feeling of exclusion for those not "chosen" for special treatment.

As Kimberley Abbott highlighted in the interview above, it also did not feel right for the "chosen one," either. They may feel honored and privileged to be supported so heavily, but this is also accompanied by guilt and questions of "Why me?" and "Why isn't this opportunity being provided to everyone?"

In our DEI efforts, we need to ensure that our drive for increased representation does not turn into divisive favouritism, which will increase feelings of exclusion for those who were not handpicked for special treatment. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion should not be special; they should be for everyone.

Build better tables.

In the words of the inspirational Lilly Singh, rather than just giving women a seat at the existing table, it is time to "build better tables."

Leaders must create space, platforms, and rituals for inclusion and ensure voices are heard.

Rather than expecting women to constantly adapt to existing tables, cultures, and rituals, we need to build new and better ways of working.

In engineering, we speak of "inclusive design". The concept here is to design buildings, systems, and products with accessibility "baked in" rather than being an afterthought. Consider the example of architecting a building inherently optimised for accessibility from the outset, rather than adding a wheelchair ramp afterward.

It is time to apply inclusive design to our organisational designs, workplaces, and ways of working. If you were to re-architect the organisational construct from a blank sheet of paper, how would you design it for optimised diversity, equity, and inclusion from the very beginning?

To be clear, I do not have all the answers, but I do know that we need to rethink our approach. We need to move beyond assimilation and accommodation and move to a new model designed for authenticity, diversity, equity, and inclusion from the outset. 

It is also clear that what we need is more authentic dialogue. We must ask better questions, listen deeply, be allies, and imagine and co-create a better future.


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