Leaders, Stop Denying the Gender Inequity in Your Organization

The lack of women in leadership roles is not simply a representational issue, but a cultural one. Putting more women in leadership positions alone is not enough; in order to truly address gender inequity in the workplace, companies must create a culture that values, rewards and supports individual differences. In a work environment where differences are celebrated, everyone has an opportunity to advance, which is why both women and men are more likely to rise to senior leadership positions in cultures that value equality.

So why aren’t more leaders creating these environments? In a word, denial. In my research I found that while most people know that women have different experiences than men at work, a majority of leaders are in denial about that fact. I interviewed 72 men and women from two different organizations, and almost everyone said that they believed men and women had identical opportunities, workplace experiences and career paths. They also believed that when women did not succeed, it was because of their individual choices or capabilities — and not because of an unwelcoming or hostile work environment.

Most workplaces were created by men and for men, which means the odds are naturally stacked against women. And even when leaders commit publicly to increasing the number of women in leadership roles, they often rely on ineffective solutions. The issue is that leaders might be aware there is a gender equality problem, but very few understand how inequality works and what role they play in its entrenchment.

Leaders are those who set the standards for behaviors in organizations. They decide what and whom gets endorsed, accepted, supported, overlooked and rewarded. They decide how many women will be on a team and if they will be treated in a way that enables them to thrive.

The call for leaders to advance gender equality at work is in essence an invitation for them to lead better. Here’s how they can do that:


Leaders should become aware of how inequality manifests itself in their teams, departments or organization, and help others do the same. To do so, initiatives for employees to talk about their experiences of marginalization and discrimination should be promoted. Leaders could also try holding a weekly meeting with team members to discuss topics like the gender pay gap.


Do you as a leader truly understand the barriers women face at work, such as the fact that they must perform at a higher standard than men to achieve the same level of success? To solve inequality, leaders need to educate themselves first, by reading, research and reflecting on the challenges women have to confront daily.


It doesn’t matter how many inclusion initiatives companies have in place, if those do not translate into a set of behaviors, norms and routines. To achieve equality, leaders must call out inappropriate or exclusionary behaviors; give employees feedback on how their behavior marginalizes other employees; and explain the consequences of unfair treatment.

It’s the responsibility of the most powerful people in the organization to set the standard for the types of behaviors they want employees to adopt, and to give the workforce the feedback and resources it needs to practice equality. That’s the only way organizations will become truly equal.

c.2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

Michelle King is the director of inclusion at Netflix and the author of “The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work.”

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