Why current gender diversity practice is part of the problem

Yabba Dabba Do theory: Betty Rubble and Wilma Flintsone (REX/Everett Collection)
REX/Everett Collection

Not a week seems to go by without some debate about the representation of women in business. But Binna Kandola believes the way we currently approach gender diversity is often part of the problem.

If the volume of words generated on gender diversity matched the level of action, we would have achieved equality a long time ago. The fact we are discussing the topic is, in itself, a sign of progress – diversity, or the lack of it, has moved up the priority list for many organisations.

However, the terms of the debate and the assumptions on which they are based have become part of the problem. These assumptions not only hinder progress on gender diversity, they have also become accepted as truth and codified into organisational policy and practice.

Making assumptions

The biggest assumptions are that males and females are different and that these differences are both natural and enduring. If that is our starting point, then the solution is – as many people advocate – to value the differences that the genders bring to the workplace.

The Invention of Difference: The story of gender bias at workThe Invention of Difference: The story of gender bias at work by Binna Kandola and Jo Kandola. ISBN: 978-0-9562318-1-9; Publisher: Pearn Kandola; Print and eBook. Price £14.99.

The increasingly accepted method, therefore, is to have people understand gender differences so that men and women can work together more harmoniously and productively. This, in turn, leads to the major argument behind the business case for gender diversity. This is all very logical – as long as you do not question the starting point.

The fact that men and women are different is because of evolution, so the story goes. In hunter-gatherer societies, men would go out seeking animals to eat while the women remained in or near the caves collecting herbs and tending to the children. This is why men have to provide for the family and women are homemakers. In our book The invention of difference: The story of gender bias at work, my wife Jo Kandola and I refer to this as theory YDD – for “Yabba Dabba Doo!” This version of events is about as accurate as The Flintstones.

Interchangeable roles

When we looked at the research we found that, in fact, hunter-gatherers are best described as gatherer-hunters and that they were nomadic. We also now understand that male and female roles were far more interchangeable – in other words, women hunted and men gathered. Gender is particularly prone to the creation of these “just-so” stories as it provides an explanation, albeit spurious, for the current division that we see between the sexes.

For example, up until the industrial revolution households were dependent on the family wage. Everyone worked: men, women and children. A pre-industrial revolution saying from Bremen in German: “If a woman doesn’t work there will be no bread on the table,” contradicts the assumption that became prevalent during the 19th century. The expectation of the sole, male breadwinner is still with us today.

So the roles played by men and women are not due to evolution, but are instead influenced by the way we view the work itself. There is nothing “natural” about women predominating in human resources and men in sales – it says more about how we view and value those roles. But what about gender differences in ability and personality that we hear so much about?

Truly equal

Despite what we pick up from the mainstream media, which loves nothing more than a “men and women are different” story, properly conducted and peer-reviewed research, based in work situations, shows that there are no differences between men and women. Some studies may show a difference, but these have proven not to be replicable.

Properly conducted and peer-reviewed research, based in work situations, shows that there are no differences between men and women”

Using this research as our starting point, it is safer to work on the basis that there are no differences between the genders – which, of course, contradicts the current orthodoxy. Research that shows no differences gets no airtime. My wife and I experienced this ourselves when producers for a popular radio programme said they would not be interested in a “men and women are the same” feature.

Another assumption worthy of examination is that of the business case for gender. The Davies report unquestioningly trumpets the findings that organisations with more women on their boards outperform those that have a greater proportion of men when it comes to the stock market. This turns the argument into if all organisations have two or more women on their boards, then all organisations can outperform the stock market. What happy pills have they been taking?

Davies also says that organisations should set a voluntary target of 25% of women on non-executive boards. People have debated different parts of that statement: whether or not we should have targets at all; and if so, whether or not they should be mandatory or voluntary. The most contentious and least debated aspect, however, is the figure itself. Why 25%? Where did that figure come from? If we are going to pluck figures out of the air, then why not have a target of 40%? Or 90%?

Matter of human capital

The real business case for greater gender diversity is a purely human capital one. Women have the same capability to be leaders now, the same potential as men have to be leaders in the future, and so the correct figure – note this is not a target, but the correct number – is 50%. Maybe we should be turning the discussion about numbers on its head. Rather than setting an arbitrary and aspirational target, we should be asking ourselves: “Given that the correct figure for women at senior levels is 50%, why haven’t we reached it?”

XpertHR resources

Good practice manual: Gender

We need to challenge the status quo on gender diversity. The position that asserts that men and women are different is simply plain wrong. There is an industry that has grown up around this, and as livelihoods depend on this industry there will undoubtedly be a reaction to the suggestion that the assumption must change.

The policies – the business case for and training on gender differences – are not only misguided, but simply serve to perpetuate the myths and stereotypes that have blighted us for many years. Legislation has changed, organisational policies and practices have changed and HR has been at the forefront of making this happen.

It is time now to start questioning the assumptions on which many gender initiatives are based and to begin a change in that most challenging of areas: our own mind.

Binna Kandola

About Binna Kandola

Binna Kandola, founder of business psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola.

3 Responses to Why current gender diversity practice is part of the problem

  1. Avatar
    dickt 27 Feb 2014 at 11:48 am #

    I cannot get excited about one theory or another from the days of hunter gatherers. It is simply speculation, which will not be proven until we have a Time machine. I can get excited, though, about the numbers of UK graduates in a range of subjects. In Law and Medicine, over half the UK’s graduates are female. In Engineering, Sciences and IT, less than 20% of our graduates are female. Even in Economics, only about 33% of grads are female.
    Something strange is going on in the homes of young people who aspire to Uni. Whatever this strange set of circumstances are in homes, it is not unravelled by schools, and it is too late when the admissions people get to see these youngsters.

    So “Equal” representation of the genders on Executive Boards is only about 50 years away.

  2. Avatar
    Francis Evans 27 Feb 2014 at 6:45 pm #

    I was disappointed by the comments on Lord Davies’s report. The one on financial outperformance is a classic ‘straw man’ argument. Of course, Lord Davies has never said that all companies will outperform the average once they achieve gender balance. He was merely pointing out the correlation, which has been extensively documented, between gender balance and performance. Once all comnpanies are gender balanced, clearly this will no longer be a differentiating factor.

    As to the question ‘Why 25%?’ this is explained in some detail in the report itself. The Davies Review set an aspiration for one-third of board appointments to be women and calculated (based on existing board turnover rates) that this would lead to 25% women on FTSE 100 boards by 2015 and 30% by 2020. Far from being plucked out of the air, the figure is calculated to be a realistic, stretch target that would focus the minds of companies and government ministers alike. It is a milestone, not a destination.

    Where I do agree with the author is that there is a significant industry devoted to advancing the cause of executive women through networking, fast-track development, mentoring schemes and the like. It seems to me that these activities are essential if we are to make progress. But we should be wary of getting into a mindset that seeks to ‘fix the women’ as if they were the problem, rather than fixing the leadership of the companies that employ them.

  3. Avatar
    Beck Laxton 5 Mar 2014 at 6:09 pm #

    Thank you. I never understand why people are so mad keen for men and women to be different – so much so that they’ll lie and bodge the figures to make it so!