“You’ve come a long way, baby”, was a slogan splashed across the glossy magazines of my youth, vaunting women’s progress – via their rights to consume products that had once been reserved for men only. The issue of women’s progress in the business world is another debate entirely. The proverbial glass sometimes seems to be filling gradually (e.g. , according to the French secretary of state responsible for gender equality, women held 45,2% of positions on SBF120 management boards in 2019); but the glass moves slowly at the top (21,4% of positions in Exco or equivalent). These broad numbers hide huge disparities. As mentioned by Guy Le Pechon, Head of Gouvernance et Structure (a consulting firm specialising in corporate governance), three corporations among the CAC 40 do not have any woman at their Exco; and only one reaches the ratio of 40% for this entity.
Yet forward movement is undeniable.
As mentioned by INSEAD Professor Annet Aris in this INSEAD Knowledge piece, she recalls a time when she and Hélène Ploix (INSEAD MBA ’68), “used to be the only women in our boardrooms, but that is no longer the case. Now there are very often three or four women on the same board.” Getting there though, was not easy with various factors and initiatives helping propel this cause, such as board dynamics, credibility and sometimes gender quotas. Such movements need to continue in order to understand impact and create change across different aspects of peoples’ lives. As explained by INSEAD Professor Zoe Kinias, also the Academic Director of the school’s Gender Initiative, “Gender imbalance and the resultant experience of women in business and society have consequences for both organisations and the communities they serve. Yet the dynamics, causes, and consequences of gender imbalance are not yet fully understood, limiting our ability to enhance gender balance.” While the world seems to show some signs of progressing in gender conversations, it is still not uncommon to encounter the stereotypes about women at the workplace.
For example, when several large French companies signed the “Charte de la Diversité” in 2004, our Head of Human Resources asked me to develop a program to support women’s career development in the organisation. While looking at what was available in the market, I was struck by how many training firms seemed to assume that women had to be “fixed”, taught to overcome “weaknesses”, or trained in more masculine behavior. This did not feel right – how could we “strengthen” our pools of female talent by focusing on what women might be “doing wrong”?
We chose instead to tackle the issue indirectly: I set up a training program led by a specialist in career management for high potentials – a brilliant older man. “Female issues,” were never directly addressed in the program and it just so happened that all the participants in each session were women. What we didn’t know then was that this successfully avoided triggering a dangerous unconscious bias about women’s competence. Instead, it sent the message that anyone, regardless of gender, could benefit from enhancing their career management skills, and we don’t need to “fix” people who aren’t “broken.” Instead, we need to build their strengths.
Despite the value of all these approaches, these actions remain focused on shifting individual mindsets. At some point, on a topic as complex as gender balance, institutions, not just individuals, need to change. I still did not have the answer to my vague discomfort and concern that some people felt our efforts to level the playing field were potentially unfair.
Continue reading the original, full-length piece that discusses four learnings discovered by the writer through her 15 years of designing, delivering and observing initiatives to strengthen the representation of women in organisations.