In a work environment where men power the organization, dominating leadership levels and creating a culture suited to them, it’s not surprising that women feel less comfortable. What we see from the current news cycle, is that that is putting it mildly! Recent stories, particularly about Fox News and Uber have shown us that a male-dominated environment can be one of mistrust, cutthroat competitiveness, and destructive macho bravado. It can be one where women are evaluated (e.g., she’s a “6”) on their looks – overtly – and taken advantage of when possible. This is an extreme, but it exposes the toxicity of some corporate cultures.
A senior human resources leader describes the issue this way, “There’s a beautiful, large aquarium full of saltwater fish and they are getting on (ahem) swimmingly. Meanwhile, a few freshwater fish are struggling to survive, much less thrive. One of the freshwater fish says to a saltwater fish, ‘How do you swim with this salt in the water?’ His reply is, “What is salt?”
Yes, there are some freshwater fish that can tolerate a certain level of salinity, but it isn’t their natural environment; they have to adapt just to survive. The saltwater fish, of course, are clueless. And if you add even more salt, the environment becomes toxic.
In the high-profile cases involving harassment and assault, they dumped a whole lot of salt in those fish tanks, didn’t they?!
Not all cultures are toxic, but they can still be salty and difficult for women to navigate successfully to advance to leadership. Nevertheless – some women succeed. For successful women, it is often due to their ability to form close, trusting platonic relationships with men where sexual tension doesn’t exist.
A remarkable common theme in the c-suite level women that I interviewed in my research on what makes women succeed in leadership is that every one of them, at a young age, had a male family member who “showed them the ropes” of effectively operating in a male world. For example, a CFO told me that her grandfather taught her how to read a stat page when she was 7, and talked to her about economics. She said, “Even at that young age he treated me as an equal.” Others talked about how uncles, brothers, or fathers, included them in activities that might usually be reserved for boys (e.g., going on a fishing trip, playing hockey in the street with the boys, working on a bike or car engine, creating and managing a stock portfolio).
These male family members showed the women I interviewed how to be viable in a man’s world, that is, how to be “one of the guys,” how to gain acceptance and how to make men comfortable with them and see them as peers.
Still, if the tank is too salty, the challenges for women working side-by-side with men can be too great to be overcome. These are toxic work cultures that reinforce norms where women are seen as sexual objects and men are power-hungry rulers.
In these environments, it is difficult for women to break through and be seen as partners rather than prey. Many executive women I spoke with have acknowledged that they have had to navigate sexual tension with more senior-level people in power. And many executive men have confided that they have been wary of engaging women as protégés because of the ribbing they would get from their male colleagues who would suggest that there was some sexual impropriety.
Women alone cannot change the culture. So what can organizations do?
How do we change the tide to create environments where everyone can swim comfortably and women can thrive?
First, it is crucial for organizations to spell out a code of conduct, one that highlights respect and consideration, particularly for people who manage others. Organizations need to teach managers how to give positive and negative feedback and how to communicate appropriately. Importantly, managers must be held accountable to live up to these standards. When a leader’s bad behavior is tolerated because they are generating big revenue and getting results, the company sends a clear message that it isn’t serious about their stated expectations of conduct. It’s in these kinds of environments that toxicity grows and takes over.
Second, organizations must define for themselves what leadership characteristics set the right tone and lead to a healthy culture. For most organizations these characteristics include collaboration, inclusiveness and empathy - which happen to be the characteristics that successful women leaders demonstrate. They create a culture of trust, respect and teamwork. Because power is shared in this collaborative environment, it leaves little to no room for the “power-hungry male” syndrome. And with women sharing more of the power, they are seen as professionals, not sex objects. The tide can then change in the right direction.
Third, organizations should provide development opportunities for emerging leaders to cultivate the behavioral skills that will shift the organization to this healthy culture. Targeted behavioral skill workshops, on-the-job projects, facilitated mentoring, and group coaching enable people to grow and thrive. Making leadership development a “team sport,” if you will, creates a cohort of men and women who value each other’s capabilities and who depend on one another to be successful in the organization.
Fourth, organizations need to make a proactive effort to promote more women to leadership. They should provide forums where women can learn from one another, where they can participate in strategic projects, and where they and their contributions can get visibility with the senior leadership team. More women in leadership, will create a balance in how the company is led, and will build a sustainable, healthy culture that resists toxicity.
Carol Vallone Mitchell, Ph. D. is the author of the book “Breaking Through “Bitch” – How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly” and cofounder of Talent Strategy Partners