I have two two clients that are both lean and successful, but with very different cultures. Both have female dominated factory floors – I don’t know the numbers but easily 2/3 of the front line folks are women. One of them has a female COO and when the top management group gets together better than half of them are of the fairer sex. The other has two women out of a top management group of 35-40 people. Both companies are led by men who are compassionate, fair and do not have a discriminatory bone in their body. So why the difference?
The one with fewer women at the top does not do anything wrong. They don’t go out of their way to only hire and promote men. Their approach is generally to promote and hire the best person who falls into their lap when management openings arise. In short, they follow the letter of the law and, beyond that, are genuinely willing to hire and promote qualified women, but few qualified women maneuver their way into the candidate pool.
The one with more women than men doesn’t exclusively look for women when they hire – they don’t reverse discriminate. Rather, they do a couple of subtle things: For one, they are more aware of the qualifications and capabilities of all of their employees. Most companies have a lot of people in the front lines, at the bottom of the organizational totem pole, who are punching well below their weight. These people have a few years of college but left without a degree, or they have unique experience elsewhere, or they are simply very, very smart but for one reason or another never applied those smarts to their advanced education or their early career. For a whole lot of reasons, women tend to fall in one of those categories quite often. This company simply finds and takes advantage of their diamonds in the rough very, very well. Since most of their shop floor diamonds are women, they mine more women than men for advancement.
The other thing they do is to hire more through networking than through unrelated third parties. They don’t look to recruiters or ads in Monster or the like except as a last resort. Their first move is always to talk to their employees and aggressively urge them to identify friends, neighbors or relatives who might be qualified and interested. Not too surprising that, when they look to a predominantly female work force for such recommendations, they get a lot of women – old friends, classmates and the like – referred to them.
The importance of the resulting gender diversity at the top was brought home to me in a recent conversation with a friend – a female – who works for a Fortune 500 manufacturer. She works in a relatively low level accounting position in a clerical-type office dominated by women in similar clerical-type roles. I had always thought of her as kind, but not terribly sympathetic to those claiming to be victims of discrimination … the sort of person whose inclination is to believe that people generally make their own luck and that most ‘victims’ of discrimination actually did something to cause the perceived slight. Her employer recently announced a major senior management reorganization and, based on her generally self-reliant world view I was surprised when her reaction to the reorganization was to rather derisively point out that 18 of the 20 new executive appointments were men. Until then I didn’t think she was the sort of person who cared … or noticed – but, of course, she does.
When I think about it, the level of shop floor engagement and the overall honesty – often harsh honesty – at the company with a strong female management presence is much higher than at the testosterone heavy company.
Good people don’t care whether the boss is male or female, black or white, Anglo or Hispanic. But when people look at the leadership team – the folks with the power and bigger paychecks – and see few or no people that look like themselves it sends a message, whether that message reflects management’s honest views or not. When all of those women on the shop floor see women in the low paying ranks and men at the top, how could they fail to notice and personalize it?
In fact, the approach of the company that looks to its workforce for talent, regardless of resume highlights, reflects both superior respect for its employees and simply better management that more effectively utilizes the talent it has.
There are lots of generally valid explanations for the generally lower earnings of women – women don’t major in engineering and science to the extent men do, women take more time off for child bearing and raising, etc… – but generally valid truths are irrelevant to specific situations. That woman – the one running that machine over there – is not some philosophical, universal entity. She is (as is everyone in the company) a unique entity with unique skills, motivations and capabilities and what may be generally true of women has nothing to do with the truth about her. Maybe she deserves a shot at greater responsibility and maybe she doesn’t. But when the company is like my client that rarely has capable women falling into their candidate pool, or the company my friend works for with a 90% male senior staff, it seems pretty clear that the company is being driven by generalities rather than one-on-one respect and appreciation for individuals and, as a result, leaving a lot of talent on the table and sending an unintended, demotivating message to a lot of good employees.