Personal Reflections and Proclamations About the Women’s Movement From A 84 Year Old Male Feminist: Blatant Workplace Discrimination
Note: This is part one of a four-part series from Founder, Richard Butz, around what it will take to finally achieve gender equality in the workplace based on his reflections from the last 60 years. You can also read part two, part three, or part four.
We know that women today are still striving to find solutions to the issues that have fueled the gender equity movement for the last 60 years (and much longer than that, but certainly for the length of my professional career). As a reflect on the work we have done for gender equity, I’m reminded how far we’ve come. Let me share with you the story of Martha from early in my career.
Martha: My First Personal Experience With Blatant Discrimination
It was 1961, at what was then Pennsylvania Bell. As a recent college grad with high ambitions, I was identified by my company as a young man with high-potential. After just 15 months on the job, and no first-level supervisory experience, the management decided to promote me to a second-level management role. I had three female direct reports, each with more than 10 years of experience, who were passed over for the job.
My euphoria around the promotion, however, was short lived. Within two weeks, one of those women, “Martha”, asked to meet privately. In her opening statement to me she said, “What are you going to lie to me about?” She continued, “I have over 10 years of very successful supervisory experience and results in this office. I have done everything your predecessors have asked of me to prepare to take on more responsibility. I’ve gone back to college on weekends to get my degree. How was I passed over for this promotion by someone with no experience in running this office and only 15 months with the company?”
What a jolt for me as a young manager!!! Caught by surprise, I responded that I would never lie to her and that I heard her complaint, but I needed some time to respond. When I asked my boss about why Martha was not being considered he responded that she is a good performer but considered her to be “pushy” and “too aggressive”.
Over the next two years, my professional relationship with Martha grew to be excellent, but neither she nor I brought up the subject again. I had no answer. I am not sure if she had just given up her ambition to take on more responsibility or if she just got tired of fighting for it. I must confess, at the time, I never gave a moment’s thought of the unintended consequences my promotion would have on Martha or other ambitious women in the organization. I didn’t recognize how my personal advancement would hinder women in the organization or stifle their advancement. I didn’t even realize that women were not even being considered for leadership roles, roles traditionally held by men.
FAST FORWARD 60 YEARS
The Good: Much has changed for the better in the last 60 years. In well managed organizations, top leadership requires every discussion about promotions include at least two women be included in the final candidate pool. In addition, in these organizations, managers receive annual performance evaluations based on how effective they have been in achieving gender balance goals. My experience is that this type of accountability is the exception not the norm in business today.
The Bad: Why Are Men More Often Promoted Than Women?
A McKinsey Study reported more women are graduating from college than men, yet men are getting promoted more often than women at every level in an organization. The biggest problem however is that first promotion into first-line management. The report states, “We often talk about the “glass ceiling” that prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions. In reality, the biggest obstacle that women face is much earlier in the pipeline, at the first step up to manager.
The reality is that promotion discrimination still exists, it’s just more subtle. Senior managers report that their organizations are a great place to work but when it comes to promoting women or letting them take on additional responsibilities, it is my experience they have unconscious biases and blind spots of which they are not aware. Many senior managers still tend to fall back on their “gut” or “feeling” when making promotion decisions. With so few women in key leadership positions to compare, it is no surprise that men may “unconsciously” choose to promote someone like themselves. The following are examples:
- Leadership Traits: Some male leaders base promotions on attributes typically associated with male traits – drive, assertiveness, or competitiveness. Women may possess these same skills, but often are not considered because they are not currently in positions where they have had an opportunity to demonstrate these skills – they have not “been there” or “done that”. These traits are often seen more negatively when displayed by women, thus unfairly penalizing women for displaying traits that are seen more positively in men.
- Code Words: Women who do not quite meet the requirements are described as “not quite ready for the job”. Men who do not quite fit are described as having “potential”. Studies show that women are, in fact, evaluated for hiring and promotion based on past achievements, while their male peers are evaluated more regularly on their potential.
- Assertive Women: Some men like to describe women for coming on “too strong” at work They refer to strong women as “pushy” or “abrasive” when they speak their minds, have an opinion, or stand up for themselves. Yet, men are not referred to in the same way when they speak their minds, share opinions definitively, or disagree with others in meetings. This unfairly penalizes women again when “likeability” and “ease of working with them” often come into play when making hiring or promotion decisions.
- Promotions vs. “Stretch” Responsibilities: In meetings about careers, too often leaders think only in terms of promotions. Often missed, is that people are also looking to be challenged professionally, as an opportunity to grow their skills, but also “prove themselves”. This can be achieved by assigning individuals a project to lead or delegating duties currently performed by the supervisor. This allows women to demonstrate achievement and potential, thus better positioning them for additional responsibilities or a promotion in the future. Professional growth does not always mean promotion.
In retrospect, we have made a lot of progress toward gender equity in the workplace. There are more women in executive leadership than ever before, but it’s still not enough. I am certain that a number of women today still feel like Martha did 60 years ago. I know there are women that are being passed over for promotion for the same reasons Martha was passed over back then.
What do we do about it? How do we make progress towards gender equity faster? A first step is to budget for a survey to determine if you have s“gender blind spots” in your organization that are occurring unnoticed by top management’s. It’s critical that you KNOW if these issues are occurring in your organization without your awareness or knowledge. The best one I have seen has been developed by Jessica Gendron and her team at The Center for Leadership Excellence. Visit their web site www.cleindy.com
Bio: Richard Butz is founder of The Center For Leadership Excellence whose mission is “Making Indy A Great Place For Women To Work” He has been recognized as a pioneer and a passionate advocate for gender balance and gender equity in business for over four decades.