30% women

When does the business culture change such that women feel they have a powerful voice? I would suggest that happens when top leadership is above 30% women.

The baby-boomer women who became the first and only women in so many industries fought their way through overtly hostile environments. I went to work for City Government because Civil Service required hiring women and minorities and the private sector did not. Over the next 2 decades, women moved up into mid-level management and then executive jobs. Not just women, but working mothers at a rate that was not happening in the private sector. Not only did the City of Los Angeles make it friendly to be a working mother, they were acknowledged and promoted for their efficiency. I believe that it was the percentage of women in high level jobs that made for a different environment and encouraged women to apply for promotions.

When I moved to the private sector, I was shocked at the discriminatory attitude towards women and especially towards working mothers. This was a loss for the employers who didn’t understand the quality and capabilities of the workforce they were ignoring. Although the negative bias towards women loosened up over time in many industries, we have seen in recent days that a very unhealthy power imbalance marginalizes women and drives them away. How many good women have we lost?

We can look at fields like government, non-profits, teaching and healthcare for best practices as to how to create an inclusive environment. Where there are women in high level positions, it is possible to talk safely about an incident or an environment that feels uncomfortable. A mentor can suggest strategies for bringing the issue up in a way that is safe. Environments are more balanced so hostile behavior is not as common, and is more likely to be taken seriously and addressed as a problem of the instigator, instead of the survivor.

I’ve been asked why women have not brought things up in the past. Really? Because it was a no win situation for them. At the least, a woman risked being branded as a whiner, weak, or trouble. They paid a heavy price for daring to challenge the culture and the powerful men who got away with it. If they couldn’t learn how to “deal”, how to protect themselves and get along, they were the problem.

As long as there is only, at most, one woman on the board, when the only Sr. VP in the room is in charge of HR, when engineering and technology “bro” culture is acceptable, we will not see an end to sexually hostile work environments.

If you want to change the culture, change the culture.  Get at least 30% women in leadership. Hold everyone on your team responsible for making the organization a safe place to work. Finally, challenge your own assumptions about who best to promote. Women shouldn’t have to dance backwards, in heels, to be counted as good as a man.