Making Gender Diversity Work

Making Gender Diversity Work

In the run-up to International Women’s Day 2017, Stefan Gröschl, Professor of Management, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy Consultant and Co-founder of the Chair of Leadership and Diversity at ESSEC Business School, takes a critical look at the current gender diversity debate and provides suggestions to make gender diversity and inclusion more effective in the workplace.  

 The gender debate starts too late in life

I recently had to buy a birthday present for a friend’s seven year old daughter. I went online to see what seven year old girls are interested in. The first picture is one of the first images I found when conducting a "girls' toys" search. By pure curiosity I also searched for "boys' toys" and found the second picture. 

The two images illustrate how the development of our social constructs and categorizations of men and women and their roles in society seem to be influenced at a very early stage in life. Yet, much of the gender diversity debate has been focusing on educational and in particular workplace related aspects – stages in life when stereotypes patterns and categorizations are well developed and very difficult to reverse or eradicate. The gender debate starts at a period too late in life, and this might be one reason why the gender debate continues to experience great challenges and barriers when introducing and developing gender diversity and inclusion at the workplace. 

Despite numerous quotas and targets for female managers to rise to the top and into boardrooms, and despite a number of success stories of ‘women who made it’ and countries which achieved boardroom gender equality, the global figures of women in decision-making positions remain chastening. The most illustrating and recent example has been Donald Trump’s picks for his cabinet and White House positions which include five women and 21 men.  In Europe, the latest EC study of the 613 largest publicly listed companies across its members’ states showed that five percent of female executives held CEO positions and 15 percent of women held other executive positions. At a non-executive level, female representation stood at 25 percent. 

Focus on what really matters

One of the reasons why women continue to be under-represented in top executive positions is not only the struggle with the well-established stereotypes and gender roles developed as early as in childhood, but also by reducing and generalizing the gender debate and policy making to boardroom compositions. The different types of boardrooms (supervisory boards, executive boards, and unified boards), the differences between public and private boards, the differences between boards that exist in different legal contexts, and the limited influence boards have on the day to day business can make the general gender debate somewhat complex and futile.  

Another key reason for the struggle of gender equality and inclusion is that the gender debate is often and largely a debate amongst women about women for women. This has translated into company diversity initiatives which are often spearheaded by interests groups pushing for the interests and promotions of their members – whether they are women, people with disabilities, or people with different sexual orientations.  Interest groups that include non-disabled, white and middle aged men are rare. The latest research has shown that with such diversity structures in place companies create silos in their organizations that are of an excluding nature, competing interests and disconnected from each other.  

Organizational diversity initiatives and structures which hinder intra-organizational gender dialogue have been influenced by movements and dynamics external to the organizational context. For example, the demands by feminist activists in Germany to use a suffix such as -x in the German language (Professx, Doctorx, etc. ) would create more artificial barriers than helping to develop and open constructive inter-gender dialogue. Decisions in Germany’s capital Berlin to no longer name new streets with male names until half of all streets carry a female name, distract from more fundamental and imminent barriers and challenges that prevent or slow down the progress of gender equality and inclusion within society as a whole and organizations in particular.  

Re-vamping gender diversity and inclusion

There is no doubt that we need greater diversity in all its forms in our institutions and organizations, and different leaders and decision makers who address our complex socio-economic and environmental challenges in a more responsible and sustainable way than many of our past leaders.  But where to start when one considers Edgar Morin’s one cannot reform the institutions without having reformed the individual mind, and you cannot reform the individual mind without having reformed the institutions?

Here are some propositions for creating initiatives that support greater gender diversity and inclusion at the workplace:

  • As with many other company-wide programs and activities, gender diversity and inclusion initiatives benefit from strong leadership involvement and a diversity strategy that is well integrated in the overall business strategy. Shift the focus of the gender discussion from the boardroom to all executive management levels. At the same time, do not hesitate to engage in small scale, informal activities which can encourage a snowball effect.  
  • When initiating gender diversity programs, keep in mind that there might be a risk that these programs reinforce stereotypes, and that by creating groups you may alienate and/or create opposition amongst those left-out.  Inclusion is imperative in the development and implementation process. Diversity as the source and vision provides the foundation, inclusion as the process ensures accountability and sustainability.
  • When considering that society shapes us and we create society then engage in gender diversity and inclusion initiatives beyond the workplace. Other diversity forms such as disabilities and integrative kindergartens exemplify how diversity and inclusion can start at an early stage in life.  
  • Recent research has shown that strategies for formally controlling bias often show limited success and do not reach their goal of promoting equal opportunities. The recommendation would therefore be to avoid making gender diversity and inclusion either a forced or ad hoc initiative. Move away from labeling your actions and activities with ‘gender diversity’ – name your initiatives by their objectives.
  • If you introduce programs that challenge any gender bias, then extend the focus of your training to the whole individual. Understanding others begins by understanding oneself. Focus on a human understanding that goes beyond intellectual understanding and explanation, and also beyond objective knowledge. Human understanding is about empathy, identification, projection; and it demands openness, sympathy, and generosity. With such competencies and skills, a more inter-gender inclusive dialogue can start within and beyond organizations.


Publications by Prof. Stefan Gröschl

  Managing religious diversity in the workplace: Examples from around the world. (with R. Bendl). Farnam (UK)  : Gower Publishing, 2015 
  Uncertainty, Diversity and the Common Good: Changing Norms and New Leadership Paradigms. (UK)  : Gower Publishing, 2013 
  Diversity Quotas, diverse Perspectives: The Case of Gender. (with J. Takagi). Farnham (UK (eds.))  : Gower Publishing, 2012 
  Diversity in the Workplace. Farnham (UK)  : GOWER Publishing Ltd., 2011 
  International Human Resources Management: A Canadian Perspective. (with P. Dowling, M. Festing, A. Engle). Toronto (Canada)  : Nelson Education, 2008.

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