Professors: Make Big Gains through Small Wins

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Debra E. Meyerson and Joyce K. Fletcher hear the same complaint over and over.

“We can’t understand why the women we recruit don’t stay at our company,” clients tell management consultants Meyerson and Fletcher. The two are faculty members at the Center for Gender in Organizations at Simmons University’s Graduate School of Management in Boston and specialize in assisting companies that have embraced equity goals but aren’t achieving them.

As for the women who are exiting, “they’re leaving in disgust and anger,” Fletcher says. “They experience so much frustration in seeing what they could do–the power they could unleash–and being unable to make that happen.”

After years of field work, the pair has come up with a series of techniques for achieving what they call “small wins,” but which actually have profound consequences for women in the workplace.

The idea is to target “practices that are not only having a differential impact on women but impede the organization from meeting its goals. They’re just not good business practices,” explains Fletcher. But since they’re male-identified practices, embodying what she calls “a macho, John Wayne notion of leadership,” no one sees them as dysfunctional.

That’s exactly the problem, says Fletcher: Gender bias can be so much a part of corporate culture that discriminatory practices fade into the woodwork.

“Gender bias has gone underground,” the two write in an article entitled “A Modest Manifesto for Shattering the Glass Ceiling,” that appeared in the January 2000 issue of the Harvard Business Review. “Today discrimination against women lingers in a plethora of work practices and cultural norms that only appear unbiased. They are common and mundane–which is why most people don’t notice them, let alone question them. But they create a subtle pattern of systemic disadvantage, which blocks all but a few women from career achievement.”

They give the example of a European-based retailer that had too few women in management and a high female turnover. The company’s managers were perplexed because the reality was so far from the image they wanted to achieve of a “great place for women to work.”

On closer examination, Meyerson and Fletcher found that the path to promotion had a lot to do with participation in meetings. However, the sessions tended to be quite combative and were often held after hours. That meant that women with families had a tougher time attending. Another obstacle was that a double standard discouraged women from being as competitive as men.

“Those that did were seen negatively as ‘control freaks’ and ‘men in skirts,'” says Fletcher.

The professors’ strategy was to get the company to look at these meetings critically, as something that ate up a lot of time and didn’t particularly encourage the interchange of ideas.

“They had been idealizing the behavior, and saying ‘boy, is that guy aggressive,” says Fletcher. “Once you identify a problematic practice, it makes it more difficult to apply the norm next time.” It encourages a shift in perceptions–suddenly, bashing a colleague seems juvenile rather than daring.

Shifting the paradigm not only allows offenders to reconsider their behavior, but it encourages a lot of men who are put off by these practices to speak up, too, Fletcher said.

“If you make changes that release people from a gender-biased norm, you’re helping women but you’re also improving the bottom line and freeing things up for men.”

But what about women who don’t have the support of management in making their companies a more hospitable place to work? What can one woman do?

First, says Fletcher, know that you’re not alone and other women feel the same way you do. Then organize to see what can be done about specific practices. If you can, meet with other women from your company. But if that’s not possible, get together with women from outside of work and brainstorm on how you achieve “small wins” at work.

The beauty of this approach is that it doesn’t force you to assimilate macho behavior to fit in, she notes. It’s a way of redefining standards, Fletcher said.

“Instead of thinking a woman is ‘nice,’ colleagues come to see that being cooperative is an attribute of competence.”

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