How gender diversity efforts are failing us

I am going to just come right out and say it:

While we are succeeding in increasing the counts of women at all levels of leadership, the prevalent model of leadership essentially remains a masculine one.

We seem to be over-focusing on an accounting perspective of diversity, and thus missing the forest for the trees. Counts of how many women are in leadership positions or occupying board seats are facts that are easy to look at. And they do tell an accurate story for sure. But they only tell half the story.

Being diverse and inclusive produces a far more resilient, vibrant, dynamic and lasting organization. It is a system in which everyone can belong, bring their whole self to work, and unleash their maximum potential. The results that a truly diverse ecosystem produces blows away what is possible by a non-diverse or a less-diverse ecosystem. It also blows away a DINO ecosystem — Diverse In Name Only! And most of the organizations striving for Diversity today are DINO organizations. They are still run like old boys clubs that have allowed women leaders into the clubhouse but expect them really to be men in women’s clothing.

Before going further, I wish to clarify my going-in assumptions, as there is ample room for readers to innocently misinterpret my intent, based on their implicit biases. And I readily admit, even in putting forward this position, I reveal my own implicit bias. There is no escaping it, even as I have tried to be as discerning an observer of my own thoughts as I could muster. These assumptions to me are self-evident truths (but admittedly will not be so for everybody):

· True diversity is good for any system

· We are far from where we need to be in terms of our attitudes towards diversity and efforts to get there

· On every dimension of diversity (gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical disabilities, etc.), the point of arrival is having representation that reflects the population at every level of leadership

I am focusing on gender diversity alone for the purpose of this article. My self-evident truths lead me to the conclusion that in the corporate world (that being my area of concern), having 50% of board positions, CEO roles, CXO roles, officers, executives etc. be women is the ideal that we must necessarily aim for. I also know that sooner or later (and by the looks of it, a LOT later!), this ideal will transpire. Us getting there is as inevitable as the abolition of slavery and arrival of universal suffrage. It is simply a matter of time. But just like the end of slavery did not end racism, and universal suffrage didn’t provide gender equality, I fear we could get to equal representation in leadership by gender and actually not achieve what we set out to achieve. Let me reiterate what I am saying: It is possible (in fact, It is likely) that we will have 50% women in leadership positions AND we will be nowhere close to the promise of gender diversity.

How can that be? The answer is simple:

The prevalent model of leadership in the world today is essentially a masculine model. To succeed in the business arena, men and women both have to adopt the masculine leadership model. There are very few role models of leaders (women or men) operating differently than that. And thus, there is no diversity of styles, thereby excluding a large proportion of the population from becoming leaders, and perpetuating the status quo on how an organization thinks, decides and acts.

We do not yet tolerate any other style of leadership. This is a terrible reality for women AND men. It has the added consequence of strong, assertive women leaders being perceived as bossy and the other deplorable b word. There was a study done where the profile of an incoming new leader was shared with study participants who were role playing as team members of the team this new leader was joining. It turned out that the participants had a positive impression of the leader when the name associated with the profile was that of a man, and a somewhat negative impression when the word-to-word exact same profile was associated with a woman. This is beyond atrocious. We prefer a particular model of leadership, and when women operate as per that model, we call them names. (#banbossy)

Calling a model of leadership masculine or feminine can make this about gender, about men vs women, which is the exact opposite of the intent of this article. This conversation really is about leadership styles. And here, I would like to bring a great truth from Taoism, and use the symbolism of yin and yang. Life itself exists as a creative interplay between (seeming) opposites — light and dark, hot and cold, near and far, small and big, real and imaginary, strong and soft, ad infinitum. And though these may seem like polar opposites, they are actually an interconnected and interdependent whole. Each one arises from the other and can have no independent existence. Each pole is necessary and neither is superior nor inferior. A healthy balance between the two poles is what leads to a vibrant, dynamic, resilient, generative system.

So let’s use the term yin and yang style of leadership. The characteristics of a healthy yang style of leadership tend to look like this: strength, agency, courage, confidence, speed, ambition, directness, rationality, resourcefulness, resolution. The shadows of the yang style include selfishness, anger, violence, indifference, emotional numbing, aggression, disconnection, control. The characteristics of a healthy yin style tend to look like this: nurturance, harmony, aesthetics, connection, emotional depth, creativity, intuition, compassion, patience. The shadows that come with that include manipulation, drama, nursing a grudge, vanity, insecurity, passive-aggressiveness, sappiness, passivity. These lists are of course partial. There are men leaders with the yang style and women leaders with the yang style. And there are women leaders with the yin style and men leaders with the yin style.

Many of you are probably looking at this list of characteristics and going, yeah, I’ll take the yang model all day any day. But neither yin nor yang model is the right answer. Each has its strengths, and its shadows. So in this frame, the claim transforms to: in order to effectively solve the challenges confronting us today, we need a leadership model that integrates yang and yin styles into a healthy balance. The yang muscle of our leaders is over-developed because that is what is rewarded and the yin-muscle is underdeveloped because healthy yin characteristics are seen as signs of weakness, or otherwise not valued when compared to “getting shit done”. But by falling prey to their biases, our extreme yang leaders have created corporations that prize profit above all else, operate with cut-throat internal competition and think nothing of pillaging the planet. So the real imperative behind gender diversity ought not to simply have equal representation for women at all levels of leadership (a noble goal in itself), but to create a healthy balance between the yin and the yang style of leadership, for the sake of creating a more capable system that better serves customers, employees and owners, while operating in a more sustainable and enjoyable way. Such a system will automatically promote diversity.

It is well-known that in agriculture, monoculture (planting a single crop in a field) produces the greatest yield in the short-term. The per acre yield of crops is highest if you plant rubber trees in one patch, cinnamon in another, and chickpeas in a third. However, it is fairly short-sighted to do that. Monoculture is a very vulnerable system unsustainable in the long-term. Nature, as against agriculture, is the ultimate advertisement for diversity. Nowhere in nature do you see anything akin to monoculture. Right from the Big Bang, nature has been organizing into higher and higher forms of diversity. From a quark soup, to atoms, to elements, to molecules, to cells, to single-celled organisms, to multi-celled organisms, to biomes of a mind-boggling variety, evolution has been on a relentless march towards greater and greater diversity.

Once you take a long view, you cannot escape the conclusion that diversity is an unstoppable juggernaut and any clueless troglodytes that are denying or avoiding this reality will soon be extinct. But it is important to migrate the lens through which we view diversity and the toolkit with which we nurture it to switch from letter (counts or instances of women in leadership positions) to spirit (true diversity of leadership styles). If we do that, every woman, and man, and every other member of a diversity group or a primary group will finally be at their true worth, the system as a whole will become more vibrant, more capable, more sustainable, and more joyful.

And that is the challenge of this age. We are at the cusp of transition from the industrial age to the digital age. The work we do as the human race is rapidly evolving. It is becoming less and less physical and more and more virtual. It is no longer about running lean, efficient assembly lines of production with minimal waste. The pace of communication, the amount of change, the volume of data and the scale of interconnectedness of the world has just exploded. But how we do the work and how we lead are still a hangover of the industrial model. For the next generation of creativity and productivity to be unleashed, how we work and how we lead is the frontier that has to evolve to its next stage. And true diversity in our leadership styles is a necessary ingredient of that, not just counting heads.