The He Said, She Said of Women's Progress

Women shout slogans during a rally calling for gender equality, two days after International Women's Day, in Istanbul March 10, 2013. Osman Orsal/Reuters

How do you solve a conflict between two parties if one of the parties does not believe there is a problem, or only recognizes it as a small issue, while the other party sees a large and continuing problem?

This is no doubt the constant question posed by marriage counselors. And it applies to many other issues such as climate change, citizen/police interactions and, for the purposes of this blog post, to women's progress.

We all have our own lenses through which we see the world. Our window to the world is shaped by experience, hopefulness, unconscious beliefs, personal filters. The challenge becomes how to reconcile opposing and strongly held beliefs in the interest of improving a situation.

I am constantly intrigued by statistics that show opposing reactions toward women's career progression and gender parity. Catherine Fox, former Corporate Woman columnist for the Australian Financial Review, found that 72 percent of male senior executives agreed with the statement that much progress had been made toward women's empowerment and career progression. Of the female executives surveyed, 71 percent disagreed with that statement.

The Financial Times, in a study last year on Women in Asset Management, found that 37 percent of female asset managers said the situation for women in fund management had improved; 70 percent of male asset managers believed the situation had improved. In the same study, 51 percent of women in fund management said quotas would improve matters; 77 percent of men in fund management said quotas would not improve matters.

In a Fortune magazine research report by Kieran Snyder on how men and women were described in personnel reviews, 76 percent of feedback on women included comments on personality such as terms like abrasive, judgemental and strident. Just 2 percent of reviews on men included those types of comments.

In a Harvard Business Review article about Harvard Business School graduates, which looked at career expectations between graduating husbands and wives, Robin Ely found that half of the men thought their careers would take priority. Almost all the women thought their careers would take equal priority to their husbands'.

When asked about major caregiver roles, 75 percent of the men believed their wife would take on most of the responsibility; 50 percent of the women thought they would take on most of this type of work. (Ironically, in reality 86 percent of the women took on the major caregiver roles, exceeding men's expectations!)

A study by Chuck Shelton shows how men and women are living in different worlds. When asked to rate diversity effectiveness among white male leaders in their companies, 45 percent of white men gave their diversity efforts positive ratings. Among women and people of color, only 21 percent agreed with that positive rating.

What causes this discrepancy of world view? And who is right? I posed that question to Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Her answer was that both men and women are right, at least based on what they are observing and what facts or cues they give weight to for their differing conclusions.

Several explanations can be put forward for these differences:

1. Potential versus performance

Men assume policy leads to positive impact. Women see that these policies are not leading to positive outcomes. For example, men saw that there was a program to mentor women, which they viewed as an affirmative program to help women's progress. Women saw no results from the mentoring program. For men it was the potential and the effort that gave them a sense of well being. For women their conclusion of dissatisfaction was based on performance.

Professor Cheryl Kaiser of the University of Washington refers to the "illusion of inclusion," in which people believe that discrimination and unfair practices can't exist if there is a diversity office or set of programs in place directed at these practices. There can be a distinct gap between the formal programs and the informal work culture, thereby setting up the potential for the illusion.

2. Confirmation bias

We all do this. It is the phenomenon of sorting facts and observations in a way that confirms what we already believe. So if men think progress is being made for women, they will place more weight on the facts they see and believe confirm the advancement, and pay less attention to the impact of the impediments. Women will similarly focus more on the facts that confirm lack of progress and less on the advancements.

3. Cui bono?

Who most feels the impact of the unlevel playing field? When it comes to gender issues, men generally don't feel the impact (this may not include men from historically powerless groups, who certainly can feel the effects). For women, gender issues have full impact, affecting their lives constantly. Our gender identities shape what hurts and helps us, knowingly or unknowingly. We are all right and we are all wrong in our different lenses.

4. We want the same things

Both men and women are looking for the same things at work, including compelling colleagues, mutual values and challenging work. Based on their experiences, men might be more likely to achieve those work goals; women, on the other hand, may have experiences that create a diminished sense of satisfaction. Given these feelings of dissatisfaction in the workplace, women may have a lower threshold when it comes to deciding whether to leave the world of work.

What to do?

If you were a company executive and were informed that there was a gap in perceptions such as those described in the statistics above, at what level does that become a problem? What should you do? If the gap exceeds five to 10 percent, that is probably a signal that the formal programs and articulated visions of leaders are not matching the realities of the workplace. In other words, "talk is cheap" and more needs to be done.

As Aaron A. Dhir, Associate Professor of Law, York University, Toronto found after studying Fortune 500 annual reports, there is no correlation between a company's annual report, which extols the value of diversity and has lovely photos of the diverse workforce, and the actual outcomes and progress a company makes in its diversity efforts.

Leaders: Look through another lens

Information rather than anecdotes always helps. For a leader it means awareness and the need to probe more deeply into what causes the gaps. Focus groups and internal workforce surveys disaggregated by gender (or other salient identities) can help.

The leadership may believe, looking through their lens, that the organization has strong programs for hiring, evaluation and feedback, career development and promotions, access to critical assignments, mentoring and sponsoring and other inclusive practices.

But leaders should be looking at how these actually get implemented. And, importantly, how does any particular group see and experience the outcomes of these programs? Is their lens different than that of the leaders?

We need a shared understanding of each of our experiences if we are to ever close the gaps in our world views and make the changes needed to improve everyone's lives. Any marriage counselor will tell you that.

Laura Liswood is Secretary-General of the Council of Women World Leaders. This article first appeared on the World Economic Forum website.

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