Why diversity & equality means ‘fixing organisations’ not ‘fixing women’

Guest blog by Inge Woudstra.  Inge is the author of ‘Be Gender Smart – The Key to Career Success for Women’  and Director of W2O Consulting & Training



Most diversity initiatives have a focus on ‘fixing the women’. They are teaching women generic leadership skills as well as how to have more confidence, find a sponsor, expand their network, exude gravitas and build their profile.

Recent research by for instance McKinsey and  KPMG shows that the focus needs to change from ‘fixing the women’ to ‘fixing organisations’. They find that especially line managers play a vital role in the advancement and retention of women. These line managers are not giving women the management support they need. Considering that 50% of graduates are now female, it means organisations are failing 50% of their workforce.


Men and women are different

Of course organisations and their line managers aren’t failing women on purpose. They are just not aware that men and women may need a different approach. After all, for many years organisations have been focussing on equality and equal treatment of men and women and talking about difference was taboo.

That is now changing. Research in psychology, biology and neuroscience finds there are differences between men and women. Of course we are more the same than different. We can do the same jobs and achieve the same. However, there are a few differences that are key at work. Women find security differently, communicate about achievements and ambition in a different way and are also not motivated and inspired in the same way.


Actions to Create Organisations that Work for Women

There are many things organisations can do to create organisations that are Gender Smart and work better for women. It’s all about becoming aware of the key differences that are relevant at work, and then applying those insights to areas such as recruitment, advancement, and leadership. Here are my personal top three of easy-to-implement actions:


Invite women for promotions, stretch projects and programmes for high potentials

Women tend to be hesitant in putting themselves forward and broadcasting their achievements. This is not because they lack confidence, it’s because they compete on ‘being nice’. In groups of girls the nicest girl, with the best relationships is at the top of the hierarchy. It’s tough to unlearn this behaviour at work as it has been linked to security and position from a young age.

Instead, organisations need to ensure that women are invited for promotions, stretch projects or programmes for high potentials. Make sure line managers ask their team for their ambitions, rather than wait for people to put themselves forward. HR can measure e.g. number of women on shortlists, in training programmes and on high profile projects to check for gender balance.


Ensure women have a peer group network

Women tend to find it harder to be promoted. This is because women find their security in a group of friends, after all a friend will not attack you. Men find their security in their position, after all when you are at the top no one dares to attack you.

It’s no surprise then to learn that creating (support)groups works better for women. Research in The Netherlands found that female head teachers perform better when given a group of peers. Finding a safe place to bond, share experiences and talk about concerns can improve confidence, motivation and self-appreciation. Find ways to ensure senior women have access to peer groups like that in your organisation.


Teach line managers to flex their style

Many women aren’t motivated in the same way by challenges, targets and status as most men are. It’s easy to see that when you compete on being the best, targets and status works.

For women though, additional ways of motivation need to be added. Many women are for instance motivated by helping others, and working in a team with people they enjoy working with. So you need to make sure that line managers leading mixed gender teams are aware of these kind of gender difference and can flex their style.

Last but not least, be aware that we are all individuals and not all women are the same. It’s useful to be aware of gender differences and create an organisation that works well for women. However, as organisations need to get the best performance out of both men and women, make sure you add those new ways to current systems and approaches. You may well find that some of your new approaches work well for some men too. In this way you create a truly gender smart organisation.


About the author: 

Inge Woudstra is the author of ‘Be Gender Smart – The Key to Career Success for Women’ . and Director of W2O Consulting & Training

 She works with organisations on female talent management, and specialises in gender difference at work. Inge runs Gender Smart training programmes for leaders, managers and women.



Author: Editorial Team

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