3 Myths About Working Women That Are Hurting Your Diversity and Inclusion Efforts

August 20, 2018

Changing our speech patterns. Adopting a power stance. Swapping out so-called "unempowered" clothing choices. There’s a lot of advice out there about how female leaders can become more confident and assertive.

These tips are certainly useful—but they’re inherently one-sided. The good news is that with more and more leaders understanding the tremendous benefits of gender-balanced leadership, the times could be changing.

“Men are starting to meet us halfway,” says author Joanne Lipman. “They’re recalibrating their behavior, just as [women] recalibrate ours. In doing so, they are transforming a one-sided conversation [...] into something far more powerful.”

In her recent book, That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together (Morrow, 2018), Joanne discusses three common myths about women in the workplace—and offers advice on how to make every employee feel welcomed and valued.

Myth #1: Women make bad leaders because they don’t take risks

Every company needs to take the occasional strategic risk to stay on top. But the Mad Men-era belief that women can’t make tough decisions like this is misguided. Female leaders are comfortable taking strategic risks and may even reduce the number of needless risks.

“Adding women to work teams tempers risky behavior like the financial gambles that crashed the economy in 2008,” says Joanne. “Companies with female chief financial officers make fewer, better acquisitions than those with male chief financial officers. Female executives make more profitable acquisitions and take on less debt than male executives.”

As Joanne points out, gender-diverse leadership teams can yield greater financial returns than those with homogeneous leadership. When men and women work together, everybody benefits.

“Multiple studies have found that adding women to all-male teams leads to greater financial success,” Joanne says. “Firms with the most female board members outperform those with the least by almost every financial measure. Companies whose top management is at least half female post returns on equity that are 19% higher than average.”

By taking steps to reduce unconscious bias and focus on hiring the very best person for the job, companies that have successfully diversified their teams have discovered that it’s good for business. As Joanne says, it’s like a volleyball coach that gets to choose the best players from the whole class, not half of it.

“They see gender equality, simply, as a business imperative,” she says. “Want to win? You need to pick the best, period, from all the available talent. Cutting out half the population will get you nowhere.”

Myth #2: Women talk more than men

The idea that women talk more than men has made headlines a lot lately. Just last year, while Uber board member Arianna Huffington was emphasizing the need for more women on corporate boards, a fellow (male) board member interrupted her to joke that women talk too much. But as Joanne points out, the research says otherwise.

“While [some] perceive that women talk more than men, women actually don’t even get equal time in group discussions unless they make up a majority—60 to 80%—of the group,” she says.

Part of the problem is that women are interrupted more often. One group who has experienced this from both sides are transgender individuals. Joanne pointed to Ben Barres, a biologist from Stanford University, who has been outspoken about his experiences. After transitioning to his true gender identity, Ben says that peers who didn’t know he was transgender respected his work more than that of his “sister”—and listened closely to what he had to say.

“I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously,” Ben writes. “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

To combat this, you can establish a “no interrupting” rule in meetings. This means that nobody, male or female, is allowed to interrupt another person while they’re speaking, giving everyone the chance to get their ideas across.

This technique worked well for Glen Mazzara, former showrunner of The Walking Dead. While working on LA crime drama The Shield, Glen fought for a diverse writers room to craft dialogue for the diverse cast. But he soon noticed that the female writers faced an uphill struggle to pitch their ideas, because they were constantly interrupted. After creating the “no interruptions” rule, he found the entire team became more effective.

“Men who do become aware of this dynamic are in the best position to change it,” says Joanne.

Myth #3: Women don’t advance because they focus more on family

While it’s true that some women (and men) leave the workforce to focus on their family, this isn’t as common as the prevailing myth would have you believe. In the U.S. alone, 70% of mothers with children aged 18 or younger have jobs.

This misconception can create extra challenges for women. Both male and female leaders might presumptively write mothers off from strong opportunities—without first offering her the choice.

“In many meetings at different companies [...] I’ve heard someone suggest a woman for a plum role and a senior manager reply, ‘She’s great, but she’ll never want to move,’” Joanne reflects. “Or, ‘She’d be perfect, but she has little kids. She wouldn’t be able to travel.’”

If you ever find yourself assuming a person (male or female) won’t want any opportunity for any reason, take a step back and ask. Shooting a quick email or picking up the phone might not seem like a big gesture, but it shows all employees that they’re valued. Even if they don’t take the opportunity, it’s always nice for them to know they were considered.

“Don’t decide for her,” Joanne advises. “Let her make that choice on her own.”

Awareness and understanding are crucial to diversity and inclusion

Understanding the experiences of women and dispelling common myths and unconscious biases can make a huge impact on your diversity and inclusion efforts. It helps you not only hire more great women, but also keep them.

“The key is awareness,” Joanne says. “Once you see these things, you cannot unsee them. I’m much more attuned than I used to be to people being interrupted or ignored.”

Meaningful change only comes from a place of awareness and understanding. So take the time to reevaluate how things are done now and where you might have blind spots, then take steps to improve things for everyone.

*Photo by Charles William Pelletier

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