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Where Work/Life Issues Intersect with Workplace Gender Diversity

iStock_000005921236XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

This weekend saw the release of another study revealing the value of women in leadership roles. The study, by researchers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and Union College, showed that the inclusion of women in a group can increase its effectiveness in decision making.

The crux of the study – that more women equals better decision making – was a surprise to researchers, who said they did not set out to study gender, but rather what they have termed “collective intelligence.” The more collaborative a group was in the decision making process, the better its decisions turned out to be – a result of “social sensitivity,” or how well group members understood each others’ feelings.

According to the researchers, the women in the study showed higher levels of social sensitivity – and groups with more women tended to do perform better. The researchers even went to so far as to say that their study would have implications in the business world.

This is pretty convincing work. But what effect will one more study really have on increasing the tiny percentage of leadership positions held by women? So far, similar research hasn’t exactly caused a sea change in leadership diversity. What’s missing?

Women Help Make Better Decisions – So Where Aren’t We Getting Anywhere?

This is only the most recent in a number of studies showing that women improve decision making, returns, management, etc. Yet we’re still lagging in C-Suite and Board positions. And in pay. In fact, the leadership numbers for women have changed little over the past few years. How many more convincing studies do we need before we start seeing more women at the top?

In fact, the issue may not be the research – or even the much-vaunted “business case for diversity.” What it really comes down to is the social fact that women, in most cultures, tend to be the lead caretakers in most households. Family responsibilities, and the unconscious cultural biases that accompany them, keep women out of the C-suite, out of the boardroom, out of line management positions, and out of informal networks that fast-track individuals to the top.

What Needs to Change

We need to make some changes. First of all, we need to stop the current piecemeal approach to gender equality. Work/life issues are not separate from pipeline issues. Are not separate from succession planning issues. Are not separate from promotion issues.

Family responsibilities present a twofold problem. In practice, when women take on the lion’s share of caretaking duties, they have less time to spend long hours at the office, as business leaders traditionally do. Yet, many workplaces are setting corporate policies to encourage flexwork. Of course, many people report that while the policies and technologies may be in place, it’s not actually “okay” to utilize them. This brings us to the other side of the coin – perception.

Women are capable decision-makers. We are capable managers. We are capable experts. And we are capable leaders. But when people perceive women in general as being too busy, or too soft, or too preoccupied with family responsibilities, individual women are not promoted, tapped, invited, or allowed into the Boys’ Club that is senior leadership.

To change the perception of women leaders, we need to change the perception of work/life issues.

What We Can Learn from Norway

One way to do this is to invite men into the wild and wooly world of work/life – which is a tactic growing in popularity. In fact, The Glass Hammer was recently invited to Norway to document the work being done at the individual, business, and governmental levels to promote gender equality – and as Audun Lysbakken, the Norwegian Minister of Children and Equality (who champions gender issues) explained, when men are culturally encouraged and expected to fully participate in family responsibilities, businesses look at women differently.

According to Lysbakken, the country’s gender quota law (that women must comprise 40% of the boards of the country’s public-limited companies) and its paternity leave incentives (financially encouraging men to take over 10 weeks off work after the birth of a child) go hand in hand.

After meeting with and interviewing dozens of people, I received a pretty consistent picture of how the country’s gender equality initiatives are working – overall, people are generally happy. They admit that there have been challenges, but they are mostly pleased with the country’s progress.

This is not to say that government mandates are necessarily the right way to go here in the US, or in other parts of the world. The people I met with were well-understanding of the nation’s unique position as a small, fairly homogeneous, relatively well-off society. But there are lessons we can take away from Norway’s steps toward gender equality – and they begin with a more comprehensive view of how work/life issues intersect with the gender imbalance in leadership.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be detailing further how Norway’s gender initiatives have played out, and how companies in the US, Europe, and across the rest of the globe can modify these initiatives to their own advantage. Stay tuned!

Editor’s Note: The FTC (and our own journalistic integrity) requires us to explain that our trip to Norway was funded by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in New York.

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