Benevolent Sexism, Unconscious Deflection, “Pinkwashing”​, and Power Oblivion

by Coco Brown, Athena Alliance founder & CEO

Why is it that many male leaders speak so highly of their female peers, bosses and staff, want them to succeed, claim to prefer a diverse and gender-balanced work environment, and yet most do so little to personally drive change toward gender parity in leadership?

Why is it that, until recently, men were fairly oblivious to the fact there even is an imbalance in leadership? Did each of them think only his team and his board were all male?

Why do women continually lead the conversation around gender parity, “liking” and “sharing” articles and guidance on this issue? Where is male leadership’s passion and business urgency, let alone moral urgency, to fix this problem?

I have come to believe that the answer to these questions can be boiled down to a combination of a few key factors. Below I outline these potential factors and provide solutions for overcoming them.

The Factor:

  • Benevolent Sexism — Can be defined as a chivalrous attitude towards women that seemingly reifies their value but actually casts women as weak creatures in need of men’s protection (understandingprejudice.org). Personally, I like chivalry, and I like the doting, protective and supportive father. I also like to be trusted to stand on my own, being empowered to reach my fullest potential, and I like to be in charge and share my vision, leadership and impact with the world. The downside of benevolent sexism is an unconscious holding women back from their own power and potential.

The downside of benevolent sexism is an unconscious holding women back from their own power and potential.

The Solution:

Men, engage your leadership in an open dialogue to test out the assumptions that are commonly understood to hold women back. If you have no women in leadership, invite a few female leaders you know outside the company to the dialogue. Throw these statements on the table (even if you don’t believe them yourself) and challenge your team to have a conversation around them. Discuss:

  • Why might women “opt out” of leadership roles? Might it be because they don’t want the role, they aren’t well suited for it, or because it’s too much pressure?
  • Why might some people say that it’s too hard to ask women to juggle a leadership role and the valuable role they play as the primary caregiver? What obligation do men have to this balancing act and to their families?
  • Why might someone say that “women should be protected and taken care of or that women don’t have the emotional disposition for the “tough battles at the top”? How might a woman’s “disposition” be better suited for leadership roles than a man’s?

By having these conversations, you may help uncover unconscious biases on your team, in your company, or even within yourself. Acknowledging and addressing the issue among your leadership is the first step in solving it.

The Factor:

  • Unconscious Deflection — Men are receptive to solutions for closing the gender gap, but are not predominately the ones driving change, because they do not understand or buy in to how much diversity benefits them too. Sadly, in many cases unless they are the target of a bout of unfavorable press or fear it might be coming, the problem doesn’t overtly affect men, and for many it does not affect them personally enough to bring them to action.

The Solution:

When something is not your problem, you often don’t notice it in the environment around you. This is true of all humans, but is an especially prevalent problem when it comes to diversity. Until more men understand and believe that diversity is a competitive advantage, that it is key to hitting company goals and optimizing business success, change will continue at the same slow pace with ongoing setbacks as we’ve seen. And this is not just an opinion; research abounds including from The 2015 Morgan Stanley Corporate Index Report, Catalyst.org 2016 research, PwC 2016 Corporate Director Survey, and many others.

Until more men understand and believe that diversity is a competitive advantage, change will continue at the same slow pace with ongoing setbacks as we’ve seen.

The Factor:

  • Good Intentioned “Pinkwashing” — By doing what everyone else is doing and/or what they have been told to do (creating targeted recruiting programs, setting goals, forming affinity groups, etc.), organizations believe they are addressing the problem. Though these steps feel good and have some impact, they aren’t moving the needle, or not moving it fast enough.

The Solution:

Last week the Harvard Business Review posted an article that speaks perfectly to the issue of “pinkwashing.” The article noted that many companies have “done the right things” to drive diversity, with little to no affect. They put in place affinity groups for underrepresented minorities, design recruiting programs to draw in a diverse workforce, and set diversity goals. They report on these programs as they continually struggle to move the needle. Despite following all of the conventional “pinkwashing” guidelines to attract, advance and retain women, these programs aren’t working. Instead, the actions that truly work are the individual, small, one-at-a-time actions like sponsorship and mentoring (as I spoke to in an earlier post).

The Factor:

  • Power Oblivion — The ubiquity of male power and dominance in leadership is so pervasive that men are oblivious to how critical their personal decisions and actions are to closing the gap.

Men, you have to realize you have the power. If you do not demand diversity or take risks on women and minority groups to get them in the door, you will not benefit from what we have to offer.

The Solution:

Men, you have to realize you have the power. If you do not demand diversity or take risks on women and minority groups to get them in the door, you will not benefit from what we have to offer. You have 80% of the leadership roles (in smaller public and private companies, closer to 90%), which means you make the decisions; you set the culture; your queues are the queues everyone follows.

In the United States, the right of women to vote came down to the vote of one man. In his pocket on voting day, he carried a note from his mother that pleaded “do the right thing son, give women the right to vote.” Men wore yellow roses (for) or red roses (against) on their lapels to indicate which way they would vote. The count amongst delegates in the voting hall on voting day made it clear women were not going to get this right. Though he was wearing a red rose, when his turn came he took his mother’s advice and, in doing so, enabled other men to follow. For men, gender parity in leadership is the modern equivalent to giving women a right to vote. Now, you’re giving them a seat at the table. Find a way, within your company, to give women power.

Activating the connections, knowledge, & opportunities women executives need to lead at their highest level of impact. Learn more: athenaalliance.com

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