In their book The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the men who think like them) Will Rule the Future, Gerzema and D’Antonio (2013), the authors found that, universally, people have grown frustrated by a world dominated by what they identify as traditional masculine thinking and behaviours; control, competition, aggression and black and white thinking. They believe these behaviours have contributed to many of the problems that we face today. Research shows that nearly two thirds of people globally believe that the world would be a better place if those in leadership thought more like women.
There is also a business case for greater diversity; The EY Ireland 2018 Diversity & Inclusion Report, Time to change gear, suggests that 98% of respondents believe that an inclusive environment is vital for business performance. So why is business failing to make meaningful progress on gender diversity? The same survey identified that almost half the respondents favour regulation as a driver for creating more diverse and inclusive organisations, while 79% say they favour regulation to address gender diversity on boards – perhaps suggesting that organisations are at a loss as to how to progress.
While business struggles to make progress on gender diversity, are there lessons to be learned from how Rwanda reconstructed its society?
In 1994, Rwanda suffered appalling genocide, with over a million people killed, often by neighbours or other family members. In the wake this devastation, it was the women of Rwanda who rebuilt the country. They didn’t set out to create a movement, many had little or no formal education. Nonetheless, they organised themselves and today Rwanda has the highest percentage of female representation in the world, with 61% of seats in the lower house and 39% of seats in the upper house, held by women. If, in the face of such adversity, these women could rebuild a country where every semblance of normality had disappeared, why are affluent, educated, first-world countries unable to engender change?
Organisations approach diversity, and specifically gender diversity, intellectually. They try to solve the problem with rules, regulations and interventions designed to deliver quick results. The difficulty with this approach is that it may change behaviours but it doesn’t change underlying attitudes.
Rwandan women made progress in part due to the seismic cultural change, all the societal norms and behaviours vanished overnight. In such a landscape, all bets are off and a new culture must be defined. The women of Rwanda have consolidated their position in the intervening years.
If we consider gender equality as an issue of organisational culture and we accept that every organisation has its own unique culture, it follows that applying universal principles simply won’t work and could even be counter-productive.
Cultural change is notoriously difficult to effect, as the saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Cultural change takes years not months. Meanwhile, over that time, more pressing business issues become a priority and, often in the face of slow or no progress, the initiative loses momentum.
This can be much worse than doing nothing in the first place, as it damages trust and causes people to believe that the organisation is not serious in its intent. It makes further interventions less likely to succeed and precipitates a vicious cycle.
My approach to diversity differs depending from one organisation to another. Change must take account of the company culture – not the culture the company espouses, but employees actual experience on the ground – if it is to have any chance of succeeding. Like Rwandan society, it must also involve the very people who are impacted in both identifying the problem and developing the solution.
In practical terms, that means doing things like asking the women who work in organisations about their experiences, as opposed to making broad assumptions and involving them in the solutions. I have worked with women employed in progressive organisations with very positive approaches to gender diversity, yet a particular line manager or other circumstances can negatively impact their experience.
Successful cultural change requires a systematic approach and, in my experience, it is the sum of small sustainable changes that make the greatest impact on shifting culture. To create a new paradigm, these changes must be consolidated and embedded in the organisation; it must become part of ‘how we do things around here’.