Gender Equality

6 steps towards gender balance in 2012

It’s easy to become a more diverse organization. And it’s smart, too.

I’ve seen one example of dramatic change right here at the University of Tromsø: In 2007, only 18% of our full professors were women. Four years later, as a result of deliberate and explicit programs, we’ve increased that number by 50%! We now find over 27% of our professorial positions filled by women, well ahead of the 18% percent in Europe but lagging slightly behind the 30% documented in the United States.

Maybe the next example of dramatic change will be in your organization. Could 2012 be the year in which you and your colleagues take a big step forward in diversifying your workforce? Is this the year you will see more women at the top?

If you’re ready to act, the following six steps will move you in the right direction.

1. Know the facts. What is the situation in your organization? How are the various job categories at your workplace divided between men and women? Are some already reasonably balanced? Are leadership positions as a category more skewed than others? How does your organization compare to its competitors in the same industry or sector?

If you’re going to try to fix a problem, you must first be able to describe it. You have to know what the numbers were yesterday if you want to change them today.

2. Recognize that gender balance is not exclusively a women’s issue. Convince yourself that the entire organization benefits when its workforce is more diverse.

This is a crucial step, and there are many resources you can use to develop your own thoughts. As I noted in Why hire (wo)men?, important starting points include McKinsey’s four Women Matter reports (WM1, WM2, WM3, WM4), Avivah Wittenberg-Cox’s books Why women mean business (with Alison Maitland) and How women mean business, and recent research on the relationship between gender balance and problem-solving skills in groups. Additional resources include the Consensus Report from the European Commission’s genSET project, Norway’s Talent at Stake book, and the many good references in all of those works.

3. Get the leadership of your organization on board. It’s crucial that leadership at the highest level embraces the importance of this issue. One of the central findings in Making diversity work on campus: a research based perspective, is that diversity must become policy. “A first step in signaling an institution-wide commitment to diversity is for the top campus leadership to issue statements of support, purpose, and action.”

Anthony Walesby echoes this when he writes in HigherEdJobs, “The first and most important key to an effective and successful diversity office is institutional commitment.” If the top leadership of your organization doesn’t see the value of increased diversity, your road towards an improved workplace and improved performance is going to be much longer. This is why it’s important to spend time on step #2, assimilating the best and most relevant arguments you can find.

4. Set specific and concrete goals. If your top leadership people come to see better gender balance as a tool for more effectively meeting the organization’s objectives, they should articulate explicit goals. At my university, the Board of Directors set a goal of having 30% women in our top academic positions by 2013. They settled for 30% because their period as board members ends in 2013 and they considered this challenging but realistic when the goal was set in 2009. I hope the next Board will go for 40%!

When your institutional leadership sets explicit goals, the rest of the organization understands that action must be taken to try to meet those goals. Programs must be developed and implemented; progress must be measured. Goals such as Become better or Increase our numbers are not enough to trigger action. Get your leadership to use specific equality targets as leadership tools.

5. Identify individuals who are motivated to advance and invest in them. Gender imbalance in organizations usually increases as we move higher in the organization. Yet, the importance of gender balance in leadership teams is particularly well documented in the research mentioned above. To improve gender balance at higher levels, individuals who are motivated to move up must be identified. Who is qualified, or close to qualified? How can your organization create the necessary support structures around them so that promotion becomes realistic?

Gender imbalance at higher levels in organizations is not mysterious. I’ve suggested before that there are only 3 reasons women don’t make it to the top. The most significant barriers are structural, such as the subjectivity of peer evaluation or the implicit prejudice yielding a motherhood penalty. Identify individuals who are motivated to advance, and then develop strategies for maneuvering past structural barriers.

6. Create contexts for accountability. Organizations should share their diversity numbers. Simple agreements with sister organizations to report to each other annually can increase their focus on achieving gender balance.

But reporting is not enough. Systems should be developed in which the achievement of goals, or not, has consequences for organizations. There must be accountability.

In Norway, to take one example, an accountability carrot has been introduced in the form of a prize for the institution of higher education showing the greatest progress in the past year. Your organization can propose a coalition for mutual reporting and a system of accountability that will motivate gender balance work. If the steps above have been taken, a competitive institutional leadership may even be eager to create contexts for accountability. (UPDATE: Norway’s gender equality prize goes to the University of Tromsø!)

Increasing gender balance in organizations is about improving the quality of the workplace for everyone. Improving the quality of the workplace feeds institutional goals across the board. Making the value of diversity in a workforce visible must become an integral part of leadership development programs.

Of course, investing in women is not the only way to make organizations improve. We must invest in men, too. But it’s clear from the skewed numbers at the top that women and men face different challenges in career advancement. It’s clear, too, that men have managed to overcome their challenges more successfully than women.

We might speculate on why. Maybe men meet fewer challenges, or maybe theirs are easier to overcome. Maybe organizational structures created by men actually favor men.

Whatever the historical explanation may be, the forward looking questions are compelling and clear:

Is 2012 the year you will increase your focus on the other 50% of our human resources? Is this the year you will move more boldly towards gender balance in your organization?

It isn’t hard. Six simple steps will get you far. Are you ready for the challenge?

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv says:

    Great post Curt! I agree! I also want to comment a bit on what you state at the end, that men have generally been able to overcome challenges more successfully than women in career advancement. I agree we should look forward, but I am interested in these reasons why, not least from an organizational point of view. What lies within organizational cultures that encourage and promote men while doing the opposite for women? Some scholars argue (and I agree) that the organizational cultures themselves are embedded with dominant masculine practices and values that devalue other practices and values (read: femininities or non-dominant masculinities). The processes you name here need, in my view, to be simultaneous with an examination of organizational culture itself, so that the culture is more open to embracing these processes. I have been looking at an institution that is very much characterized by dominant masculine practices and values (even more than ours!!) – the military. The likelihood that these values and practices are eliminated from the organization is low – in some instances these practices and values are in fact necessary to the institution. How to encourage women then? One might just stop there. I think it is valuable to explore the multiple masculinities embedded within institutions that have traditionally resisted women’s career advancement, and find those practices and values that are already part of the system but which are more open to embrace these changes. In other words, use some of the values and practices of the organization to change the organization. I think this can help with the implementation of such processes as you describe. Anyways – just my little comment ;-). Thanks for another great post!!

    • Curt Rice says:

      Right. (I think.) There are two very basic issues, as I see it. One is to change the system we have to eliminate the structural barriers and the other unacceptable features that have emerged over time. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when, for example, men and women experience equal opportunities to advance. The second challenge, which I guess is the one I’m addressing in this post, is prior to that one, and is about working within the imperfect system we have. I think that the long term solution of course is change to a different system, but the short term solution is change within the existing system, so that we don’t simply have to accept the status quo until the barriers are eliminated. You’re doing the hard work, and I’m delighted about that!

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