Diversity Of Thought – Breaking Gender Barriers

December 2, 2018

This week, as we show our support for the Women in Super* movement, we’re exploring the idea of diversity and the focus on getting women into leadership positions and onto Boards, whether that be in the financial services industry, superannuation, or more broadly.


While this can only be a positive step in the pursuit of equality, it overlooks a very fundamental concern: that diversity is significantly more broad than drawing gender lines.


The Diversity Paradigm


Unfortunately and all too often, diversity is viewed through the narrow lens of what we can see. Gender and race are amongst the most obvious physical traits that are linked to diversity. But what if we took this further and looked at the differences that are not so obvious?


Diversity itself is more broad, comprising of these ‘obvious’ physical and demographic classifications, and extending into non-tangible and variable areas of diversity that can and do change throughout our lifetimes based on our experiences. This includes:



> experiential diversity - the things that we have done in our lives that have shaped us (think work experiences, education, family/home life, etc); and


> cognitive diversity - the way we think about things and solve problems (think about how your learning style differs from others, or how some people work better under pressure, etc).


We understand now that employers are unconsciously drawn towards hiring people who have similar surface attributes to them; those who have a similar culture and experiences to them. As a result, it becomes increasingly obvious that we need to encourage those in hiring positions to look beyond these unconscious biases to hire people who do not look the same as them, who haven’t gone to the same school as them, or who haven’t followed the same life path as them.


We need to look beyond these obvious visual markers because the point is to find people who think differently to you. This is the fundamental benefit of having a mix of people on Boards and in leadership positions. The more diverse the backgrounds of people on the Board and making decisions, the more we are able to challenge each other’s ideas to find the best solutions.


Ultimately, what really needs to shift is our perception. Let us think of this not as evening out the score or gender balancing, but rather as it is truly intended: improving our collective thinking and decision-making by increasing diversity.


To Quota or not to Quota


In a well-intended effort to address a lack of diversity at Management and Board levels, many organisations have been implementing quotas on the number of women. While this achieves a change in composition over a relatively short time frame, it does little to address the underlying stigma that women do not belong in positions of power, or worse, undermines their authority in that position because it gives the impression that they did not get it based on their merit alone.


Of course, there are two sides to the quota argument. On the one hand, it is seen as being better than doing nothing and commended for driving a change that has been needed for some time. It’s viewed very positively as a starting point – it enables us to have more women in leadership positions, thereby creating role models for others to encourage them to aspire to reach these positions too.


On the other hand, it gives people reason to think that the woman hired for the position didn’t achieve it on her merit alone. Effectively this means that women have to prove themselves more than men, both before the appointment and then again afterwards. Research has suggested that men are often promoted based on expectations of future performance (i.e. they will grow into the role) while women are often promoted based on demonstrated performance up to that point in time (i.e. they have demonstrated that they can perform in the role). This constant need to demonstrate merit simply doesn’t seem to exist the same way for men and implementing quotas could reinforce this differential. It could also undermine a woman’s self-confidence, or breed resentment with men who feel the quota is hurting their career.


In some developing nations, where gender lines remain very prominent and women are expected to remain home with the children, quotas have been critical in enabling women to participate in leadership roles and on Boards. They acknowledge, however, that all of the challenges in gaining acceptance still remain. Despite them being the CEO or the Chairperson, they have to continue to battle against the ingrained societal view that this is no place for a woman, and then go home to cook dinner for their husbands. Whilst the societal views in Australia have progressed, the undertones and lingering questions over the capacity of a woman to lead an organisation are often present.


Quotas on the number of women in leadership positions or on Boards also reinforces an idea that gender diversity itself is the ultimate desired outcome. While we can all perhaps accept the little quip that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, this does not ensure that diversity of thought is achieved by simply having both a man and a woman present in the discussion. Groupthink^ is not gender discriminatory.


A Call to Action


Regardless of what side of the fence you are sitting on when it comes to quotas, there is one pending question that remains… What can we do about all of this? It may seem trite, but in order to shift these societal views and address the underlying issue, women need to continue to actively get out there and be leaders. Taking action and being driven with your career is one way to quash any ideas that women are being ‘helped’ along in their career by a quota. 


Moving the conversation on diversity beyond gender lines is also crucially important. Be clear on the diversity that you are bringing to the table through your experiences and stand up for them. Don’t allow others to reduce you to a gender quota. Challenge others to better understand the diversity that they bring and remind them that we all have a role in promoting and supporting diversity and inclusion, because it cannot be achieved by simply reaching a female quota.


To date, there has been plenty of conversation on the issue and now is the time for doing, taking action and being in control of your career. If you can’t see any women in leadership positions in your organisation and you want to see better role models, then maybe it’s time for you to step up and be that role model. At Hall Advisory, we are proud to be led by a team of women who are doing just that!



* Women in Super was established in 1994 to provide networking opportunities for women working in the profit-to-member superannuation and associated financial services sectors. Their mission is to achieve equality in the superannuation system through promoting equal participation of women at all levels within the superannuation industry and by improving retirement outcomes for women through awareness and advocating policy change. Check them out at http://www.womeninsuper.com.au


^ Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.



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