EqualiSea

The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

Ruchika Tulshyan thinks it’s time to turn the tables.

Gender Equality Overall, SeattleMartha BurwellComment

For far too long we’ve been putting the work of achieving gender equality in the workplace on women.


I’ll admit it.  I’ve gone to more than one “how to negotiate” workshop. 

I can do power poses like no one’s business.  Strong eye contact, shoulders back, spine straight.  But also making sure to sit at a slight angle so I don’t look “too aggressive.” Staring at myself awkwardly in the mirror, I’ve practiced comebacks for common arguments as to why I should be paid less.  And I’ve even used cute phrases like “wiggle room” to soften the blow of –-gasp—a woman asking to be paid more!

But the truth is, I can do power poses for the rest of my life and I still won’t be paid the same as my male counterparts.  Because individuals can only get so far within a system that’s constantly pushing back on them.

As Ruchika Tulshyan writes in her new book, The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace, “too much of the existing narrative focuses on ‘fixing women’—getting more women to negotiate, assert, demand, be confident and ‘lean in’ to leadership.”

Author Ruchika Tulshyan Photo by Jama Abdirahman

Author Ruchika Tulshyan
Photo by Jama Abdirahman

Instead, if we take a closer look, we see that gender inequality is something that we unintentionally built right into the structures of our businesses.  With the example of negotiation, we know that we have social stigma against women asking for more money.  But we keep salaries secret, we keep requiring employees to negotiate, and we keep penalizing women for it. 

Perhaps we’re ready turn the tables, to evolve our workplaces so that they work for women, as well as men.  Because our old systems were designed for a different time, and a different workforce.  And frankly, we’ve outgrown them.

That doesn’t mean that we have to demolish our way of doing business altogether—but we do need to be open to a steady stream of renovations. 

The good news?  These investments will also benefit the business.

This is what Tulshyan calls “The Diversity Advantage.”  It’s the idea that “diversity isn’t just the right thing to do.  It’s also a financially savvy strategy in today’s hyper-competitive digital marketplace.”

Tulshyan’s 2015 ebook guides the reader through the many deeply-ingrained, but often unintentional, ways that businesses disadvantage women.  Being solution-oriented, it also offers a gold mine of ideas for correcting this, so that the companies may tap into the full potential of the talent of 50% of the population.

Last month, I had the chance to sit down with the Seattle author, and ask her a few questions about some of the themes in her book. 

We started with one of the most-publicized effects of gender inequality in the workplace—the gender pay gap.

The book states “one of the biggest obstacles to resolving the gender pay gap is denial.”  Yet there is so much evidence on the systemic gender pay gap. Why are people still in denial? 

Right now, a lot of businesses are still run by middle-aged, or older, white men.  And from their point of view, they see that there are more women in the workforce than there were previously.  Which is true, but the problem is that they are concentrated in lower-level jobs.  The higher up you get in leadership, the fewer women there are.  And many leaders don’t look hard enough to see this, or don’t question why, and decide to prioritize other things.  

They also may tend to think that the lack of women in leadership roles is a result of individual choices.  But in reality, this has been disproved time and again.

Or, they assume that they themselves are not sexist, and no one they work with is sexist, so they jump to the conclusion that they’re not doing anything wrong.  They may not understand the implicit biases that we all hold. 

So it really comes down to a lack of knowledge and understanding about the actual situation.  They need to understand that it is a priority that impacts the performance of the entire business.

The book demonstrates how pay secrecy is harmful to reaching pay equality, advocating instead for more pay transparency.  Right now, in Washington state legislature, we have a bill being considered that would make it illegal for employers to punish their employees for discussing wages.  Would this new law be enough?

This is a first step, but it’s not enough. 

We are very uncomfortable talking about money in this culture.  In fact, we’d rather talk about relationships and sex at work than talk about money! 

Until we have a cultural shift in which it becomes less of a taboo to discuss salaries, we’re still not going to see a lot of pay transparency.  Businesses can address this by slowly phasing in transparency, or at the very least taking a comprehensive look at how they are currently paying their employees. 

When it comes to supporting parents, the book states “the most impactful solutions are initiatives and policies that benefit both genders such as paid leave, flexibility, and child care support.”  Why is that the case?

It’s been well documented that creating benefits that are only for women actually harms women, because it treats them like a special population.  So the businesses will start to discriminate against them because they now come with additional expenses.  So instead, those benefits should be for all employees. 

Another reason has to do with millennials, who will soon be the largest demographic in the workforce. Both male and female millennials have shown time and again that they value those types of benefits, demonstrating that businesses must provide them if they want to be able to attract and retain talent.

Lastly, in order to truly make change, we need a cultural shift about who’s doing the caretaking and the homemaking.  Right now, women still shoulder most of that work, and it is a big burden.   We must culturally start allowing, or requiring, men to take on some of that burden.  So making these types of policies accessible to men helps achieve that.

Sponsorship is something the book advocates highly for.  What is sponsorship and how can it be implemented successfully? 

First of all, sponsorship is very different from mentorship. A mentor is generally someone who you meet with occasionally and get guidance from. A sponsor, in contrast, is someone who is in a more senior position that works with you to strategically advance your career, using his or her own reputation and connections to help you move forward.

However, a sponsor may not understand the nuances of gender.   And as more sponsors will be male, simply because there are so many more men in top leadership positions in business, it’s important that we consider gender training with sponsorships. 

For example, in many companies, networking and relationship building among leadership still occurs after hours over dinner and drinks.  This is part of what’s considered the “old boys club.”  But, if a (typically younger) female protégée is invited by her (typically older) male sponsor to these events, it is often perceived very negatively, and it can actually harm her career.  To avoid these types of situations, it’s recommended to create a more formal sponsorship program that includes guidelines and training around gender.  Formal programs also help create accountability by having points at which other leaders check in to see if the sponsor is successfully helping the protégée meet her career advancement goals.    

There are quite a few countries in Europe, and several in Asia, as well as India, that have legally mandated gender quotas for corporate boards.  In the book, it states that quotas do have some effect, but that there are other ways to get more women on boards that are more effective.  What are the recommendations?

Quotas have their ups and down.  On the one hand, they are useful in that they provide accountability.   It’s too easy for a company, without quotas, to say “we tried it and it didn’t work.” A quota requires that they keep trying.  Facebook is a surprising example.  They have only 2 women on their board, and no women of color.  This seems odd, because the most rapidly growing segments of their market are overseas, and they could clearly use diverse leadership to help understand those markets.  Facebook does not utilize quotas.

On the other hand, quotas are not enough.  There also has to be a cultural shift. 

Otherwise you may see something like what happened in Norway, in which the same few women are asked to be on 4, 5, or more boards, and most women still don’t have access.  Lastly, women are much more likely to stay on boards if there is a culture that makes them feel welcome in a leadership position. 

Here in the US, we are culturally quite far away from having legally mandated quotas. In fact, we have a Supreme Court case this year that will question whether affirmative action (which quotas fall under) is even constitutional.  Why is there such a difference between attitudes about quotas in the US, as compared to other countries?

We believe in the US that we have a meritocracy, where anyone who works hard enough will achieve success.  It’s the American Dream.  But that is simply not true for everyone.  That mindset ignores the systematic oppression that is present in our society, and fails to recognize that only some people can participate fully in our “meritocracy,” and those people happen to be mostly white men.  

We are uncomfortable with the fact that our belief in meritocracy may be an illusion, because it challenges the idea that those white men achieved success based solely on their own talent. 

The introduction to the book states “make no mistake: this is no feminist manifesto.  Sure, gender equality is a human rights issue. But engaging women in the workforce is primarily an economic issue.  Diverse leaders drive bottom-line growth and high-level innovation for global corporations.” 
After reading the book, I’d argue that it IS a feminist manifesto, as well as an economic argument.  So I’m curious why this disclaimer was included.

The book was also meant to appeal to men, so that phrase was included to emphasize that the book is first and foremost an economic argument. 

We must have men participate in this movement in order for it to be successful. There isn’t a case in history in which an oppressed group has overcome oppression without the participation of those in power. 

The only exceptions are when extreme violence was used.  In the case of gender equality, men are still largely in power, and they must participate as allies in order for us all to succeed.


Lastly, Ruchika noted that compared to other places she’s lived in (The UK, India and Singapore), in our Seattle culture, we tend to avoid tough topics like this.

But Seattle, we’ve got to talk about it.  And more than that, we’ve got to take responsibility and act on improving gender equality in the workplace.  If the ethical case doesn’t sway you, the business case can’t be ignored. 

You can purchase Ruchika’s book on Forbes.  A paper version will also be available soon.