Most organisations have come around to the view that Gender Diversity is no longer just “good to have” but that it has to be treated as a “business imperative”. However, in my experience, very few people (let alone organisations) are able to muster any real conviction about it. While the case for Gender Diversity from the point of view of equality, fairness, social justice and even access to a potentially larger talent pool, is indisputable, its linkage with organisational effectiveness remains suspect. Thus in the minds of many people, Gender Diversity is linked more to “lowering of standards” than “enhancement of organisational effectiveness”.
I believe the main difficulty arises from a paradox which is inherent in the Gender Diversity issue- its promotion has required underplaying the differences between the two genders, whereas, its link with organisational effectiveness requires appreciation and celebrating the differences between the two genders. let me elaborate.
One of the most significant blocks in the road to Gender Diversity is the frozen stereotypes around gender and gender roles. Beliefs around relative attributes/ competencies/ roles of the two genders (e.g. men have greater flair for technology, women are soft-spoken or at least should be, men are more rational and assertive, women are more emotional and caring, men are bread winners, women are home makers, etc.) are quite rampant even if they are not consciously acknowledged.
Thus, promotion of Gender Diversity has necessarily entailed confronting these stereotypes and underplaying the differences between the two genders. Not surprisingly, most advocates of Gender Diversity take a Gender Neutral stance and focus upon the inherent commonality of the two genders and draw attention to the social handicap faced by women. Their essential argument is that women have been deprived of their due, and if given the opportunity they can be as good as men. There is also an underlying belief (with considerable justification, I think) that highlighting differences between the two genders will necessarily be detrimental to the interest of women.
Ironically, this stance of Gender Neutrality and emphasis on commonality between the two genders becomes a major deterrent to appreciation of benefits of Gender Diversity. If people are seen as Gender Neutral Robots of skills and competencies, then by implication, having people of different genders does not foster any real diversity. All that it can ensure is that the organisation is drawing its talent from a wider and larger pool, but the basic nature of the “talent” remains the same. In such a scenario, any claims of linkage between Diversity and Effectiveness, sound hollow and do not carry any real conviction.
Any meaningful claim of benefits of Gender Diversity for organisational effectiveness can only be made provided it is first recognised that the two genders bring Different sets of orientations/competencies/predispositions etc. to the table and both sets are equally valuable and the resultant tension has immense creative potential.While there is considerable research evidence about both commonalities and differences between the two genders, its applicability and implications has all kinds of problems.
The first problem stems from the fact that these differences are not absolute in nature. Like any comparison between two groups, the intra-group differences are larger than inter-group differences. Thus, on the whole, men may be taller than women, but there are several women who are taller than most men. When a inter-group difference is applied indiscriminately to every individual case, appreciation of difference degenerates into stereotyping.
The second difficulty arises from the multiple meanings and interpretations which can be assigned to these differences. For example, there is research evidence to suggest that in general women are more “empathetic” than men. However, it is difficult to say as to whether this difference is on account of the bio-existential imperatives of their gender or on account of socio-cultural factors. Thus assigning any stability/finality to these differences can become highly problematic.
The third, and I believe, the most important difficulty arises from the power imbalance in gender relations. Whenever two groups are locked in a lop sided power relationship, the attributes of the higher placed group tend to be regarded as “superior” to the attributes of the group which is lower in the power equation. This can be as superficial as skin colour or as deep as values and beliefs. Given the patriarchal structure, there is a natural over-valuing of masculine attributes as compared to feminine attributes. in such a scenario any hint of differentiating between the attributes and predispositions of men and women, effectively degenerates into discrimination against women.
This differential valuing is even more stark in the organisational context. Since most of our thinking around management and leadership is based upon masculine principle, the picture of an effective leader in the minds of many people is heavily tilted towards masculine attributes such as assertion, ambition, analytical ability, courage etc. While the grip of the “alpha male” over our notions of leadership is reducing, we are still far away from valuing and gracing feminine attributes such as sensitivity, intuition, receptivity, resilience etc.in our notions of leadership. Thus the message which gets communicated to women is that in order to succeed they must shed their inhibitions- become more assertive and demanding and net-work better- in other words become more “men like’.
This approach does not foster diversity, but creates more hegemony. Consequently, the very argument of Diversity for Effectiveness becomes meaningless, because no diversity is being fostered in the first place. All that is being done is that people from different gender (or other backgrounds) are being put into one huge melting pot and then placed into the same mould. Simply put, the argument of Diversity for Effectiveness is sustainable, only if the Differences are first recognised and then celebrated. For this to happen, it is necessary that the Feminine part of us (irrespective of whether in a Man or in a Woman) finds its legitimate space in our notions of management and leadership. Without that Women may find space in the corporate world, but the doors will remain closed for Femininity. The link between Gender Diversity and Organisational Effectiveness resides not so much in having more women but in integrating the feminine principle in our notions of management and leadership.
The theory of Paradox, tell us that no paradox can be resolved at the level at which it arises. In case of Gender Diversity, the paradox gets created by the conflicting needs of Gender Neutrality and Gender Sensitivity. For promoting Gender Diversity it becomes necessary to emphasise the shared humanity between Men and Women. However, for harnessing the potential of Gender Diversity, it is necessary to be sensitive to the differences between the two genders and celebrate them. If this paradox is to be resolved, then we need to look at issue of Gender Diversity not just as a Man- Woman issue, but also in terms of the Masculine and Feminine principles- how they are configured within us and in the systems to which we belong. Only then we will be able to appreciate how these principles complement each other and how the tension inherent between them is the source of all human creativity and how they can contribute to organisational effectiveness.