We are in a bull market for advice to women on how to get ahead in their companies.
For most of my career, I lived it. I worked in some of the most male of companies (OK, I never worked for Twitter). I learned, through trial and error, how to communicate in a way that I could be heard (research tells me: not too tough and not too soft); how to ask for a raise (advice books say: use facts, not emotion); and how to raise my hand for the next opportunity (studies show: similarly qualified females raise their hands for the next job far less often than men.)
But, while I was making my way through the ranks, women were moving sideways in corporate America, and backwards in my industry: the number of women in financial services declined by 200,000 over the past decade, while the number of men increased by 237,000. This has been happening at a time when women’s lower risk tolerance, greater client focus and greater long-term orientation are sorely needed by the banks. Oh, and by extension, by the entire economy.
So are we trying to fix the wrong problem?
Smart companies are thinking differently. They are recognizing that the inherent differences among genders and cultures are not things to be fixed, but are instead sources of strength. It is exactly these differences that drive the higher returns, lower volatility and greater innovation that accrue to more diverse companies.
Smart companies will embrace and draw on these differences. They will put in the effort that working with people who can’t “finish each others’ sentences” requires. They will push themselves to advance the people who always show up on their slates and never get the jobs (and, we all know it, most big companies have these perennial “slate-fillers.”) They will change their evaluation systems to eliminate “cascading bias,” in which the qualities of the existing (typically white, male) leadership team are reinforced and other types of skills are undervalued.
It won’t happen quickly, and it likely won’t be dramatic. But companies that don’t take this action will increasingly lose out. They’ll lose out to the companies that “get it” and to emerging entrepreneurial opportunities. And they’ll not only lose out on talent, they’ll lose out on innately understanding their full set of customers and their needs.
In the meantime, perhaps my old industry will choose to believe that its under-representation of women employees and the fact that female customers rank it 33 out of 33 of the industries that serve them is all one big, zany coincidence. And besides, as one bank CEO said to me when I recently laid out for him stats on the economic power of women: “But don’t their husbands manage their money?”