I’m feeling a bit sheepish about writing yet another dissection on why women lag behind men in their careers. Often, I think the problem has been overanalyzed and that I’m just adding to the stockpile of laments. So many women’s voices on the subject — no wonder the exercise feels insular. But where’s the input from men?
According to gender consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, men — particularly those in power — might be more enlightened than women think. The catch is that these men are seldom enlisted for the cause. Here’s how she describes her findings in the Harvard Business Review blog:
“ ’We think that the top three obstacles to better gender balance are: Management mind-set, leadership criteria, and career management processes,’ concluded the group of men during last week’s leadership team meeting, after an animated debate.
“Then I asked the much smaller group of women who had been enthusiastically discussing the topic in a corner of the room to present their analysis. ‘Self-criticism, lack of confidence, and self-selection out of promotion pools’ was how they explained the dearth of women in the room — and on this team.”
As one of the participants summed up the result: “The men blamed the system, the women are blaming themselves!”
The self-flagellation probably doesn’t surprise many women. After all, it’s become almost a cliché that women tend to blame themselves for not succeeding. The real jolt is that the men are cutting women more slack than they allow themselves.
The lesson from the exercise, Wittenberg-Cox wrote, is that “women are not always the best or only source to understanding the causes of gender imbalances — nor designing solutions to eradicate them.” The mistake, she added, is that “we are usually asking the wrong people (only women) the wrong questions ( ‘what do women want? ‘),” rather than enlisting the opinions of those (men) in power who “are the ones best able to understand and adapt their systems.”
So far, though, women almost exclusively control the program, which is one reason, Wittenberg-Cox said, “so many ‘empowering women’ initiatives have failed.” In fact, she suggested that women are wasting precious time by investing so much in these solipsistic efforts:
“Every women’s network, every additional dollar spent in coaching and mentoring women, every women’s conference is just another way of avoiding the real issues and adding another whip to blame the ladies.”
Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Look, I’m a believer in the feminine perspective — that “until you’ve walked in my Manolos, you don’t know what it’s like” view. I’m also a sucker for that female bonding stuff, because I actually like those cocktail-fueled events. But let’s not kid ourselves — they are what they are. Operating in an echo chamber, delightful as it might be, isn’t getting us anywhere.