Warning: Your woman may not be diverse (but it’s not her fault)

COLOURBOX3759383Hillary Clinton has often said that working to achieve gender equality isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, too.

I share that view. I know the research that leads us to that conclusion. It’s research about how employees prefer working in organizations with gender balance in their leadership. It research about the problem-solving skills of groups being improved by diversity, or it’s about how diversity helps us avoid groupthink. It could even be research about specific measures, such as gender quotas for the membership of boards in Norway, which has led some researchers to claim that increased gender equality gives enhanced profitability for the organization. All this research supports the claim that work to improve gender balance in your organization is work that will improve many other things there, too.

I know those results. I think about them. And I’m not the only one.

When I attend powwows such as the Gender Summit, I hear about research leading to even more arguments that it’s smart to work for gender equality.

Indeed, I work on building such arguments myself, and I’m confident that they point us in a new and better direction.

But I’ve started to be uncomfortable with one interpretation I encounter just a little too often. My concern arises when we build discussions around questions like “why is it critical that women be leaders?”

And just to be perfectly clear, I do think it is critical that women be leaders. Yet I still find myself a little worried.

Do the right thing

Perhaps the most important reason that women should be leaders is not about what’s smart to do. Instead, it’s about what’s right.

Having women in leadership positions is normal, it’s the default. If there are women working at one level of an organization, there should be women working at every level of that organization. Why shouldn’t the leadership of an organization have the same demographics as the lower levels of the organization?

Talent, brainpower, interest, desire, motivation … all these thing are found in abundance in whatever group we might choose to study; you’ll find those traits in men and you’ll find them in women. The groups may not be identical for every single trait we might imagine, but they are nonetheless found in abundance in every group.

And because of that, if the members of these groups don’t advance throughout their careers to leadership positions in roughly equal numbers, then something is wrong. Something in the organization. Something in the system.

A telltale of discrimination

If the members of different groups don’t advance in comparable numbers, then we have grounds for suspecting that there are structures that are affecting men and women differently.

What kinds of structures might these be? There are many. Examples include the way people are chosen for leadership positions, or the way the jobs are described, or the effects of self-selection. Perhaps the most significant is the impact of implicit bias — itself the result of deeply entrenched societal structures and norms — on every kind of evaluation procedure.

The default case is advancement without regard to gender. And because of this, when there is deviation from the default, it’s a red flag, telling us that something is wrong.

So, yes, women should be leaders. And one very important reason for that is because it’s only right. It’s fair. It’s democratic. It’s a telltale of non-discrimination. In short, it shows us if things are working right in our organizations or — more likely — it shows us a skewing suggesting that they aren’t. And we need to know that.

It’s critical

When we ask ourselves why it is critical that women are in leadership positions, what kinds of things do we think of? What is it that makes that critical?

The very structure of that question invites answers about why it’s smart, about how organizations benefit, about how your seemingly unrelated strategic goals in fact can be better achieved if you ramp up your investment in women. It’s not a question about doing the right thing; it’s a question about what is critical, decisive, and relevant to your survival.

Consider one more reason it’s smart to promote women. Research shows that women show a wider range of leadership styles than men, which in turn leads to the creation of a good work environment for a wider range of employees, leading to better performance for an organization.

This is where we start to approach my discomfort and my concern. There’s a problem with arguments making the case that it’s smart to make a greater investment in getting women to the top. Or, rather, there’s a problem with the way these arguments get used. Very simply, when construed at the individual level, this approach gives a disproportionate and unfair responsibility to individual women.

A diverse collective

The argument that it is smart to hire more women risks giving a lone woman in a group responsibility for realizing the benefits of diversity. Is that what doing the smart thing is about? Is it the individuals in an organization who aren’t white men who are responsible for providing the benefits of diversity? On the contrary, it’s the diverse collective that must realize diversity.

It’s the group — ideally a diverse one — that has to be given responsibility for showing a diverse range of leadership styles. Bringing more diversity into a group, e.g. by achieving better gender balance, may be an opportunity for the group to develop its range of leadership styles. Diversity of backgrounds in a group can lead to diversity in ways of talking, negotiating, and viewing issues in the organization. It can lead to diversity of leadership styles, but not because a few people come pre-programmed with more.

While everyone in a leadership team has their own background and their own sets of skills and strategies, it’s not reasonable to expect that a couple of group members from under-represented populations will be exactly the ones who bring along with them the skills that suddenly make the group not only demographically diverse but also diverse in their skill set. The generalizations of findings in large populations, e.g. reports on women leaders in hundreds of European companies, should not lead us to expect that same range of diversity in any particular individual.

The benefits of big numbers

We should build our policies on research. But when we extrapolate from large studies to practice, we risk concluding that hiring a few women will provide us with the benefits of diversity.

We can’t put that responsibility on individuals. That has to stay at a “large numbers” level.

Indeed, there is already research showing precisely the error of expecting an individual woman at the top to show “female” leadership styles given that success at “male” leadership styles is often what has taken those individual women to the top.

Research shows us that diversity of leadership styles is good for organizations. We achieve that by taking responsibility for diversity as a group, not by giving it to a single individual.

This blog entry is based on my presentation at the Gender Summit 3 — North America.

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



  • Very well put, thank you. It helped clear my mind of a couple of misconceptions

  • Great point. In some ways, your argument is an important extension of the notion that it’s unreasonable and wrongheaded to expect any woman to speak on behalf of all women (even though women in politics often get saddled with such unconscious expectations and unavoidably disappoint by not being able to fulfill the impossible task).

    • Curt Rice says:

      Thanks for that observation. There is definitely a context for these thoughts, and you identify an important part of that. This of course applies to arguments about any kind of diversity, e.g. ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc etc. Diversity is important, but there are many missteps one could make …

  • constantine says:

    Interesting points you make, where I do have a problem though is in the use of the term ‘implicit bias’ or ‘implicit’ anything, for that matter, because it essentially says, you do not display any obvious signs of being gender bias or racist or homophobic but I know you are or that society is. This, kind of, gives the wrong starting point to any of these arguments. It says you are guilty because I say so, now prove you are not or change your behaviour to suit the norms i tell you to suit. It doesn’t really work for me.

    • Curt Rice says:

      Individuals may or may not have explicit bias, but we all have various kinds of implicit biases. I think an important starting point is actually to raise awareness about this. I’m not suggesting, however, that people have implicit bias because I say so. There’s a huge body of research that makes this clear, at least for me.

  • Hazel Oatey says:

    I don’t think research needs to be done or that there is unfair responsibility for women. I may be over simplifying the matter, however, I’d like to think we would very soon be able to move beyond such discussions and focus on vision and strategy and then place the right person/leader for the job. We have been in a male energy dominated business environment and are going through the growing pains of re-dressing the balance to bring women into the mix. This means appreciating that it’s about having the right leader with the ability to serve, whether it be a man or woman. We are spending a lot of time here on subjects that a micro to my mind. Worth but micro. IF we could rise above this and encourage others to do this it would start to dissolve the boundaries quicker than we think. Are we trying to solve a problem with the mindset that created it?


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