Gender bias: Complex Problem, Simple Solution

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Gender bias in the workplace, media or anywhere else is a complex problem to understand, let alone “solve.” It’s so complex, many of us don’t bother thinking or talking about it. For those of us who do, some days we wish we didn’t have to.

But what if the “solution”—one solution, because it’s going to take many moves and adjustments, not one grand plan to address the issue—could be simple? Say, for example, leadership parity?

Take The Lead prepares and propels women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across allsectors by 2025. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Bringing women to half of the top leadership positions in our nation’s most important institutions across the board? It is! This simplicity and focus is part of what drew me to Take The Lead. This mission gives us all one common goal (and a common language to use) as we also work toward systemic change for women and girls. This work of bringing women to leadership parity doesn’t happen in place of systemic change, it happens alongside it.

There’s a framework we use in organizational change circles called The Cynefin Model, developed by knowledge management scholar David Snowden. We use it to help individuals and teams wrap their heads around the problem situation they’re looking at and trying to work with. All too often, we take a simple problem and make it complex. Or we take a complex problem and try to apply a simple, quick fix. The basic idea is this: if we don’t understand the nature of the problem, we can’t begin to apply an appropriate solution. We may make things worse.

The Cynefin Model also reminds us that change happens all sorts of different ways. Sometimes what’s required of us in terms of our approach is simple. Sometimes what’s required isn’t so much specific actions, it’s how we respond over time—what behaviors and patterns we want and need to help cultivate in our communities and organizations over time.

If you look at the Cynefin framework, I don’t think anyone would place the problem of gender bias in the simple domain. It doesn’t belong there. Systemic change, a real solution, will require a collective response that is emergent. It’s going to take time to solve this women’s leadership problem, and it’s going to take many of us stepping up in ways we probably don’t know much about yet.

But there ARE simple things we can do in response to this larger complex problem to help things along and speed up the pace at which systemic change happens. In a recent Harvard Business Review Google Hangout, HBR editor Amy Bernstein tells us that the organizations that do well by women leaders and this larger issue of gender balance recognize the problem, educate their organizations about the problem, develop women leaders, and make women’s leadership everybody’s issue, not just a women’s issue. “There is a recognition of new ideas and a new way of doing things, and an explicit goal of including people who are in some way different than the usual leader,” she says. “It starts at the top and it continues all the way down through the organization…”

Bernstein is listing some best practices for building the kinds of teams that make the best use of women’s (everyone’s!) ideas and talents: name the issue, make gender equity everybody’s problem/opportunity, and be explicit about inviting those who are not in power into the conversation and decision-making going on. Similarly, doing everything we can as women and men to bring women to full leadership parity is one simple action we can take to bring about larger, sweeping change. Imagine what might change once we have 50% women in Congress, for example, instead of the roughly 20% representation we have now.

The beauty of the Cynefin model is that it just helps us see problems and opportunities differently. We aren’t going to solve gender equity overnight, but if we work hard, we can reach leadership parity by 2025.

Read more posts by Lex Schroeder.

About the Author

Lex Schroeder is a writer and speaker on gender equity, systems change, and the future of work. She is a Leadership Ambassador with Take The Lead and is based in NYC. She can be reached Follow her on Twitter@lexschroeder.