Gender Bias Is the Canary in Our Mine

Smoke emerging from smokestack at chemical plant, evening
Smoke emerging from smokestack at chemical plant, evening

In light of the intensifying outrage over Judge Aaron Persky's slap-on-the-wrist sentence for Stanford swimmer Brock Turner's rape conviction, I'm reminded of realities that aren't fading away. Gender bias continues to go deep, very deep.

We keep hearing women are making progress, that gender equity is moving full steam head in the courts, in the workplace, in academia, in government, in corporate corridors. But what's the headline for this judge and his sentence?

Ask not, "What difference does gender make?" but rather, "How can gender make a difference?" -- Simmons School of Management

In business, there's been a growing drumbeat of resources and initiatives launched to "train women" and coach them into "becoming leaders," typically by "boosting women's confidence" and "risk-taking abilities." Such efforts are so patently wrongheaded and patronizing that we end up with courtrooms and social thinking that blames women for being assaulted. Presumably, if only she had more "confidence" and wore appropriate attire, she wouldn't have been attacked.

It's men at the top who need training

In looking into how gender bias operates in business, the Center for Gender in Organizations (CGO), a Simmons College research facility, concludes that "we are asking the wrong questions because we're stuck in a frame that we need to move out of."

Research emphatically proves that women leaders and workplace gender equity is both a business benefit and a competitive advantage. As a result, all the talk about fixing women's weaknesses and weighing men's and women's various skills and tendencies is really a smokescreen.

When organizations have trouble advancing or attracting women, CGO suggests, it's not a "women problem" but rather a more general problem. Like the canary in the mine, it's a signal that something toxic is being released in the work environment that is affecting everyone. And, I submit, that's also the signal being sent from Aaron Persky's courtroom, the Senate, women's soccer, and I could go on ad infinitum.

Rethinking options, not to mention leadership

Continuing its workplace analysis, CGO points out that until women entered organizations in large numbers, the problem was something workers simply adapted to unquestioningly as a constraint of the work-a-day world, regardless of the costs to themselves or to the organization. "Of course you have to work eighty hours a week--that's being committed!" or "Of course you have to travel five days a week--how else can we meet the clients' needs?" or "Of course you need to act like a bully--it's the only way to make it in this profession."

But these are cultural assumptions, and by questioning them and changing work practices to reflect a different set of assumptions, we not only make organizations more equitable, we often enhance their effectiveness as well -- as we've seen from study after study that shows when women are in charge, profits rise.

The strength of women entrepreneurs and the rising tide of women starting and running their own businesses are molding a new mode of leader. I can't think of a better way to create new models for business and, in turn, for social and cultural institutions.