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Fixing the “Pyramid Problem:” A New Approach

Contributed by Caroline Turner, author of Difference Works: Improving Retention, Productivity and Profitability through Inclusion

Women are still not proportionally represented at the upper levels of business. Women represent about half of entry-level employees and lower level management positions. But at each level up the corporate hierarchy, the percentage of women is lower.

According to Catalyst, in 2011 in the Fortune 500 women represented only 14.1% of executive officers, 7.5% of top earners and 3.2% of CEO’s. In law firms in 2010, Catalyst reports, women made up 45% of associates but only 19% of partners. These declining percentages form a pyramid: the “pyramid problem.”

This is more than a problem for women. It is a problem for business. The pyramid problem results in substantial, unnecessary costs for business and it prevents business from realizing the documented upsides of gender diversity. It’s time to shift the focus from how women need to change in order to succeed to how corporate culture can change in order to achieve gender diversity in leadership. That takes framing and talking about the issue differently.

How can women change agents climbing the corporate ladder talk about the pyramid problem and enroll men and leadership in wanting to fix it? I suggest three things:

  1. Present the business case for fixing the pyramid problem
  2. Bring attention to the strengths of both masculine and feminine approaches to work without stereotyping
  3. Find a few male allies who see and will speak up on the issue.

The Business Case

The pyramid problem is a serious business issue. Leaders are not likely to get behind fixing it because it is the “right thing to do.” They may pay attention when they see real costs and real upsides. Women need to articulate the business case, which includes:

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  • Inclusive cultures have higher customer satisfaction productivity, profitability and retention. (See Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion).
  • Decisions made by diverse groups are better. (See study by Kellogg School of Management).
  • Diverse businesses are better able to tap diverse marketplaces, including the vast women’s market. (See Report by She-conomy).
  • To hire the best talent, businesses need to attract and retain women as well as men. Women make up close to half of the hiring pool. The educated hiring pool is more than half women (women earn more undergraduate and graduate degrees than men).
  • And the most important point: Gender diversity in leadership is correlated with higher returns. (See a series of Catalyst studies entitled “The Bottom Line.”)
  • Leveraging the Strengths of Masculine and Feminine Ways of Working

    Both men and women embody masculine and feminine aspects—and both have strengths and limitations. Having women do all the adapting and conforming (a) deprives businesses of the strengths of feminine forms of working and leading and (b) means businesses fail to get the higher returns associated with gender diversity–not to mention that is lowers engagement of women and contributes to the pyramid problem. Women and men need to understand and appreciate feminine as well as masculine approaches to getting results, to model and leverage them and to point out their contribution to the bottom line. Those books that help women succeed in business can help us articulate what women bring to the table.

    Finding Male Allies

    If women alone champion the cause of eliminating the pyramid problem, it will remain for longer than if men and women combine their voices. Men’s voices will carry weight because (a) there are more of them in the upper ranks, and (b) they have no perceived personal agenda (only a business agenda). If you can’t find men who “get it,” use the business case to convert a few.

    Women have done well navigating the business world and adapting to environments where masculine ways of working are modeled and valued. This hasn’t solved the pyramid problem, which will remain until leaders know the importance of creating cultures that engage and leverage the skills of both men and women. Women still need to do things like speak up, toot their own horns and avoid the double bind. But women leaders looking to change the status-quo must also find a new and compelling way to talk about the pyramid problem and the business value of gender diversity.

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