Gender Balance and Diversity: the Same Challenge?

Let’s be candid. Companies have been pursuing diversity initiatives for decades in an effort to have more women in leadership. Does it appear to you that it’s working? No. That’s because simply attacking the challenge through broad, non-specific programs will never get at the issues standing in our way. 

Many leaders I’ve talked to don’t want to address the issue of gender balance in their organizations head on; they prefer to talk around it in the context of diversity. Although the issue is one of diversity, it’s different and must be specifically addressed. The very definition of diverse is “showing a great deal of variety.” There is no great variety in gender. There are two, and neither constitutes a minority.

The world is made up of approximately fifty percent men and fifty percent women, making this diversity challenge much easier to solve. Leaders tend to understand the value of ethnic diversity—the benefit of perspectives and thinking that people who have experienced other cultures bring to the table. The different backgrounds bring value. Gender balance represents that same kind of value.

Gender balance in leadership does not have to be fifty-fifty. Balance means having enough of both genders to demonstrate various ways of thinking to the degree that it causes questioning, debate, idea generation, and problem-solving to create healthy business strategies and tactics. What is “enough” balance to accomplish that goal? Is the ratio sixty to forty? Seventy to thirty? That question is still being answered.

The critical mass theory—first outlined by Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Drude Dahlerup for the benefit of 1970s corporate cultures—may apply here. If we can move away from having one female for token status, to including enough women to combat the behaviors of a male-dominant group, we will alter the behaviors of boards and executive teams, thus resulting in better problem solving and solutions. By the way, the reverse holds true in the case that a group is dominated by females. 

If you’d like to learn more about why it’s important to have more gender balance in leadership and how you can make that happen, you can read about it in Money on the Table, available here.