”Men themselves have wondered what they see in me. They try so much, but they can’t touch my inner mystery. When I try to show them, they say they still can’t see.”
~ Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman” -from her 1978 poetry volume, ‘And Still I Rise’
The quote above, from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman”, struck a chord. At times, a future where gender equality is something more that two words in an idealistic and etherial construct seems distant; but then I realise humanity surpasses us and things that once seemed impossible can change. Think back to February 1990, when South African President FW De Klerk ordered the release of Nelson Mandela from Victo Verster Prison. The practicalities of how that event would manifest created tension and disagreement between the two men – the first of many as they negotiated the tricky path being walked toward what was in essence, the transfer of power. The brutal reality of the situation was that both remarkable men needed the other if apartheid was to end.
I’m contributing to an organisation’s strategic programme to increase its representation, distribution and participation of women. The organisation’s history is traditional, hierarchical and culturally masculine. Its organisational narrative articulates aspirational pursuit of ‘excellence’, and desire to embrace ‘change’. The organisation’s reality is somewhat different: its proportion of women has stalled at around 15% and inclusion of women isn’t significantly reflected in the organisation. So far, the ‘More Women’ programme has progressed from the conduct of a well conducted ‘pre-mortem’, the identification of key benefits, to a statement of ‘the problem’. The programme has also established three work-streams: the first is consideration of the organisational ‘start point’. Second, consideration of recruiting, retention, progression and safety. Third is consideration of the role of culture in sustaining inclusivity, diversity and opportunity. On the surface, this is promising.
Someone at one of the first meetings about the programme asked what I was bringing to the table. I said, “I don’t think your 30% women stretch goal’s ambitious enough”. Swift glances up from notebooks, and silence in the room held a moment or two. I said, “If you’re going to put a number on it, then make it 45% – and how do you know that the problem you have stated is the right problem?” The person said, “Wow!” I liked her; she saw I’d just presented the opportunity to be more ambitious. These were smart, dedicated people wanting to make their organisation better. It was like the realisation dawned that I had just presented the opportunity to ride a spirited horse, bareback – and without a bit in its mouth. I offered ‘Red Teaming’ their aspiration to employ more women. It’s a practical response to a complex cultural problem. Culture disposes how we think and gives context to behavior. Human group dynamics further exacerbate the problem. Red Teaming (with carefully selected and quintessential heretics) allows decision makers to enhance their knowledge and understanding through consideration of alternative perspectives. It challenges strongly held institutional assumptions (not uncomfortable!), and has to be pragmatic. 45% isn’t a target, or tokenism – it involves developing mindsets that women could actually comprise half the workforce – essentially potential transfer of power.
If you decide to read and learn a little about feminist theory then I challenge you not to say that, “Yes! There’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it; we must do better”. What consequences for an organization, if it doesn’t include more women? At base level, it’s about survival; a horse exists with one sole purpose driving all its thinking and behaviour – to pass on genetic material. Apply that analogy to the traditional, hierarchical and cultural male hegemony; how does it pass on its ‘genetic material’? What we think we know about the world is constituted through the ways in which we engage with the world. However, narratives arrest meaning; they tend to control and coerce conformity to an existing order. The work being undertaken by the organisation I keep referring to has the potential to do something remarkable – in a small country that is remarkable; New Zealand is proud of a heritage that saw it become the first country in the world where women could vote on equal terms with men. Ahead, as the reality to engage and employ more women unfolds, there is uncertainty, ambiguity, vulnerability and strangeness to be embraced.
Professor Sebastian Reiche conducts research on international assignments and forms of global work, knowledge transfer, talent retention, cross-cultural management and global leadership. In a recent article he discusses how in spite of all seeming efforts, recent data suggests that the diversity issue is not improving. With the World Economic Forum calculating a decrease in the gender gap by an average of 4% in the past 9 years, this figure predicts complete gender equality by the year 2095 (when I will be 125 years old!). The distinguished feminist international relations theorist, J.Ann Tickner writes in an article published in 2004 that, “In today’s world of about 190 states, less than 1 percent of presidents or prime ministers are women.” Combine that with the World Economic Forum figures and Reiche poses a cogent question, “are we doing something wrong, or just not enough?”
Here’s an analogy that helps me get comfortable with something difficult: a horse refusing to step onto a horse float. It’s kicking up a fuss, offering resistance, fighting against the idea, and doing anything to avoid going onto the float. I’ve dealt with lots of such horses, but haven’t encountered one yet (in over a thousand with which I’ve worked) that hasn’t willingly, and of its own accord, walked onto the float and stood calmly in the end. That doesn’t mean I mightn’t meet one that defeats me in future (in which case, I’ll need to learn more about why), it just means I’m optimistic that my approach is right and what I’m trying to achieve is reasonable.
Gender equality and leadership are inextricably linked; dealing with associated issues requires courage and innovation. This isn’t a bandwagon to leap on as a self-promotion exercise. If you pride yourself in thinking differently; if you pride yourself on being innovative and open-minded; if you consider yourself fair and unbiased; if you pride yourself on having the moral courage to do what’s right – then you’re probably a feminist. What critics try to cloud is the simple reality that Feminist theory seeks to better understand women’s subordination in order to prescribe strategies for ending it. Having taken time to read and learn about feminist theory, then as a man – a Naked Horseman – I do say that, ‘Yes!’ There is a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better. This view was reinforced by a link to Ben Acheson’s video that was sent to me on Facebook – and I subsequently posted it to The Naked Horseman’s page. It was interesting to see that a picture of my goat head-butting one of my calves attracted more likes and achieved a greater reach. If ever I needed an indicator that what lies ahead is difficult, then that was it!
I’ll try to link the close of this article back to my opening paragraph. If we want ‘diverse’ organisations (because frankly that’s how we achieve the best type of resilience and ensure we survive – through passing on our organisational ‘genetic material’) then there’ll be tension, and disagreement and resistance. I don’t for one minute believe I know the answer; however, the brutal reality is – phenomenal men and phenomenal women need each other if gender inequality is to end.