I was watching a recent episode of the new show “Superstore.” The sitcom centers around the lives of employees in a big box store and touches on racial stereotypes and biases. In one of the plot lines in this particular episode, a Latina employee is offended during an employee meeting when the store manager asks her to hand out samples of salsa simply because she is Latina. She becomes even more offended when another Latina employee offers to do it, further perpetuating the stereotype. As the meeting ends and the employees leave to go back onto the floor, the manager shouts after them, “Color blind is color kind.” I guess that constituted diversity training.
The manager’s admonition on a fictional television show though actually resonated with me in the gender diversity space. I have heard people make comments such as, “A women’s initiative? Why don’t we have a men’s initiative?” Or, “We treat everyone equally here, everyone is the same. We are gender blind.” Or, “We should not be making our training gender specific – everyone has the same issues with …” (fill in any business issue you want – rainmaking, networking, leadership). The message that these comments convey is that a separate women’s initiative is not necessary. If the corporate world was truly equal and both genders had the same ability to succeed and climb, I too may subscribe to that line of thinking. But the reality is that we simply do not live in that kind of perfect world.
We know the statistics – there are currently 22 female Fortune 500 CEOs – that is 4.4%. The case for board positions is better – it is estimated that women will hold 21% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies this year. But even that percentage does not approach equality compared to the number of men. If both genders truly had the same opportunities, it would follow that the facts would bear out very differently when women make up over 52% of workers in management, professional, and related occupations. Clearly equality is not the case. If an organization operates under the misconception that both genders are treated the same in the business world and that specific training for women is therefore not necessary, the result is that a great disservice is being done to women.
Of course there are training areas that are relevant and pertinent to everyone, regardless of gender. Everyone needs to learn how to communicate well, business development is an essential skill in many professions, both male and female attorneys need to learn negotiation skills. But there are differences in how men and women address those areas. Men and women clearly communicate differently (hence the success of the book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”), they network, market and develop business differently, and they have different negotiation strengths and weaknesses. And the overall issues that women face – bias, not being taken seriously, work-life integration issues – are very different from men. As a result, in order for women to succeed, they do need more gender targeted training. That is not to say that men should not be included in that training – it is imperative that men are engaged and participate – but the substance of the training itself needs to focus on giving women the meaningful, applicable skills and tools that they specifically need.
Maybe one day the corporate world will really be different and men and women truly will have equal opportunities for leadership and success. After all, isn’t that what we are working toward. But until then, gender blind is definitely not gender kind.