Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the past few months, we’ve been talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, including the pandemic. Today, part 2 of our conversation (Read part 1 here) with Linda Scott, author of The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Women’s Empowerment, and professor emeritus of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Oxford. Scott is a senior consulting fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, founder of the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment, and was named one of the top twenty-five world thinkers of 2015 in Prospect. She is a gender economics consultant to the World Bank and has just completed a major study on women’s financial inclusion for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
David Benjamin and David Komlos: What are a few of the insights from your research that you believe business leaders in North America would find shocking?
Linda Scott: People who have read this book consistently report that they are shocked, astonished, and often infuriated by it. They often remark that something they didn’t know appears on nearly every page. There are lots of men - and women - in contemporary companies who still think the gender gap is a fiction or not a big deal, but we now have unequivocal quantitative evidence that the gender gap is global and that its effect is very negative.
The scientific evidence doesn’t support any of the usual excuses, for instance that women can’t cognitively process math or that they are less able leaders than men. Instead, I argue that the problem lies, in the Western countries, with the very few men left who are still not on board with gender equality. Multiple surveys show that the majority of men in the world believe women’s equality is an important goal that still has not been reached. This is especially true in the US, where I estimate that less than twenty-five percent of men are still offended by the idea of equality. I argue in the book that these men hold back the progress everyone else wants, especially in companies, because they become enraged when the topic comes up. Unfortunately, they often hold positions of authority, so they build institutions that don’t work for women or, in fact, other men. They are a big problem within companies because no one these days wants to work alongside bigots or in a workplace that’s unfair or where someone is that volatile.
Benjamin and Komlos: What is ‘stereotype threat’ and what impact can it have on women in the workforce and the organizations they are part of? How can leaders neutralize it?
Scott: When a stereotype about women’s capabilities in a particular task is articulated—like “women can’t do math” or “women aren’t good at science”— the target of that myth has to allocate cognitive resources to hold the insult at bay while they are doing the task. That reallocation hurts their performance. If, in a workplace, that stereotype is continually asserted, the woman’s performance declines over time. Ironically, the impact is particularly pronounced among the most able women because they are likely to have more invested in the work. When they are forced to defend their very identity, it has a big impact on their outcomes.
Eventually, these women get fed up and walk out. That’s one reason why women leave tech more often than other industries, for instance. The society and the sector loses an investment in their training and wastes a scarce resource.
Research does show that if you stop the harmful speech, the impact disappears. It should be explained to employees that this speech actually hurts their colleagues and the company. It should be presented for what it is: bigotry. White-washing this kind of talk as “unconscious bias” just gives cover for further negative behavior.
Benjamin and Komlos: In the book you say that “When you look past the show of ‘diversity planning’ in big companies, you see that most employers are doing nothing at all to help women advance.” What does this look like and why do you think this happens?
Scott: Research shows that the majority group, whether it’s whites or males, will sabotage the diversity program. This happens at the workbench level, where individuals don’t necessarily see the company’s goals as their own, but are interested in their own career. There is also a group phenomenon in a setting where there may be only one or two women on a team. Remember that there is well-documented minority of men who are enraged by gender equality. So if you promote the woman on the team, you risk backlash from a man who thought they should have had the job and that may result in sabotage against the company. The other men may even join in.
This is something companies do not want to confront. It's scarier than a sex discrimination suit. And I don’t think they really know what to do about it. But, obviously, it results in blocking women’s advancement, which is usually explained by some slam against the women, rather than a productive effort to solve the real problem.
Benjamin and Komlos: Toward the end of the book, you beseech people to “join the women’s economic empowerment movement on this important new journey”. How can individuals meaningfully change their own behaviors to do so
Scott: I never wanted this book to be a rant that inspired anger but offered no hope. So there are practical solutions sprinkled throughout the book. There is a section called “Next Steps” at the end. The list includes things for organizations, small groups, and individuals to do and the suggestions include buying from gender friendly companies, giving to women’s empowerment charities, using advocacy to pressure your government, investing in companies in Bloomberg’s Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index, or becoming an angel investor for women entrepreneurs.
We must stand up for women in our organizations. These are uncomfortable things to talk about because angry retaliation is often a risk, but we have to break the silence because it gives consent to bad behavior.
The number one thing people can do is to help raise awareness of the issue and what it's doing to humanity; to help tell the world that this beast is as malevolent as that shark in Jaws, and it’s a killer. World leaders need to be shoulder-to-the-grindstone on this, and the way to drive that is through public pressure.
Benjamin and Komlos: How will you personally know that the Double X Economy has sufficient momentum to drive widespread change?
Scott: What’s in this book has the potential to have a really big impact globally. It’s currently being translated into 10 languages, and it will be available in 39 countries by the middle of next year. When the people in all those countries start advocating for women’s economic inclusion, I will know I have succeeded.
Benjamin and Komlos: Any other advice you can offer? Any parting thoughts?
Scott: Gender inequality, including in the economy, is something that we need to put a stop to, and not just because it’s going to benefit women, but because it’s going to help us all. Allowing it to continue is costly in both dollars and human suffering. Achieving equality will bring good things to everyone, women and men. That fact is no longer up for debate. We now have proof.
And we can make this change. There’s no question about that, either. We just need to find the will and the courage to do it.
Original article posted on Forbes on Dec 8, 2020
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