Still, women are being consistently asked to cater to the male paradigm? That’s why we continually have this issue of gender equality which hasn’t gone away after over 40 years of effort. Unmasking Barbie means understanding who women really are–as individuals and as women so that we can accept ourselves for who we are and stand for it.
One day years ago I was co-facilitating a gender differences workshop at a large consulting company. While my partner was asking questions I walked over to the flip chart to jot down the answers that were coming in. As I grabbed the marker and stood next to the easel a few men from the crowd bellowed and giggled “Hey Barbie!”
So, what is wrong with that? It was just a joke right? I am blonde so it makes sense, every blonde could be the butt of a joke about Barbie. Here’s what’s wrong with it: I felt humiliated. Instead of being a person like everyone else in the room, I was an object. It was stereotyping at its highest level. The unconscious bias held by those in the room allowed them to justify it to themselves that, “it’s a joke”. The circumstances were made even more complex by a common subtext in the office which would have come out if I had objected. That subtext is: “you take things too personally, you are too uptight”.
Taking a Look Back
Looking back, I don’t believe any of this was intentionally hurtful or discriminatory. At the time, it was meant to be light and funny. With that said, what’s operating behind the veneer of humor in the workplace is “unconscious bias”. In one sense, unconscious bias, which is the same as stereotyping, is the lens through which we see the world and others. With that said, unconscious bias is far more subtle, and insidious. This is because it’s unconscious. We don’t even know that are we are doing it. We don’t’ realize that we are putting people into the boxes we are. This happens every day for women and other groups.
In that room years ago, the audience made up of both men and women automatically put me into the box of the attractive blonde who by virtue of how she looks must not have too much going on upstairs. Women who appear attractive in business are almost universally labeled as stupid and for this reason aren’t taken seriously in the business world. We’re all just Barbies.
But far worse than the stereotyping and unconscious bias was how I felt about it.
I Heard It and Felt It
I felt what they said in my heart. And in a small way, I put myself in that same stereotypical box which hindered my career and my confidence. Then to compensate, I joined in. I made fun of myself and joked about being Barbie to numb myself from my own feelings. But inside, I was dying. With every joke I heard or participated in, I chipped a tiny piece of myself off and buried it away. This story may strike some of you as unique. It’s not. In fact, it’s pretty common and it has been going on for as long as any woman can recall in the business world. Yes, my sister nod.
Which I find ironic, in light of what happened back in the 1940’s when women pulled our countries through the war while the men went off to fight. Because when the men returned, women were again put in boxes, sent home and expected to have babies or be in other supportive roles at work like working as secretaries, nursing or in customer service. And so businesses were re-built again under a male-centric paradigm:
A paradigm is a perception or a group of ideas about how things should be done, made, or thought about. In other words, it’s your perspective on the world, your point of view, or your beliefs about what’s true.
The business environment we now currently live and work in is decidedly male: it is patterned after a male of way of thinking and acting; it’s Hierarchical, making accomplishing and winning the first line of action, with bottom line thinking and a ‘fix it attitude’. This isn’t wrong; this approach to business has worked quite well for many years. But, hear me, it’s now outdated. It’s outdated because it no longer works for the entire population of both men and women.
The male approach has been what’s fueling business and women typically don’t use that approach. For society to function and grow, women need to have babies and take care of families. This means they can’t work long hours. Also, women are intuitive, sensitive to emotions and conciliatory. This has been interpreted by men as being at odds with pragmatism and the ability to make tough decisions. As much as men may ‘say’ they are for women advancing and having equal opportunities, the mindset which brings about the unconscious bias inherent in the business world does not allow it.
In the Beginning
When I began my career in the business world I quickly realized this. With 4 years of sales experience in the beer industry, I tried to secure a position in a larger organization. But there I was told I had to start by being a secretary and move my way up. As an aside, no man I ever met had to start off as a secretary and move up to a sales position. But back then, the women applicants did. After fighting my way straight to the sales desk I was still relegated to the task of taking letters for the president and getting him coffee. No other sales rep had to do that. it was a classic example of the mindset of the male paradigm: Women exist in business to support their male counterparts.
Now, in my role as a coach for executive women, what I constantly hear other women say is that they are having to pull more than their own weight, do jobs the men won’t do and save their colleagues to make them look good. Just like years ago with the Barbie comment, we women are continuing to put ourselves in the same box as the men put us in in business.
Gender experts say that men are detached and independent and they state their opinion, they speak in a directive manner. They grow through challenge, are task focused and fact based.
It is said that women are connected and interdependent and they encourage the opinions of others and speak in a collaborative manner. They grow through encouragement, are relationship focused and intuition based.
Why is That?
So why is the first set of strengths better for business than the second? Obviously one set is not better or worse for business—it’s just that we have unconsciously agreed to and accepted the first set and those strengths are the ones we have come to identify with as being successful in business. They are the same as the male paradigm, they define the modern business mind.
In the male or business paradigm these female strengths are perceived as weakness. The business world doesn’t value intuition, a collaborative way of speaking, or long discussions to gain buy-in. It doesn’t value emotions or heart-centered approaches. Instead, women who exhibit these appear as though they don’t know the answer, are flaky, and unprepared. Women who come from a heart-centered point of view are judged as being too emotional and attached to make the hard decisions.
So asking women to throw their hat in the ring, toot their own horn, fight for promotions, and grab a front row seat at the table is asking a woman to be different from who they naturally are and instead do things the male way. This is the male paradigm being asserted. Women are being asked to approach situations in less natural but more accepted way in order to be seen and valued in business.
And, hello, it’s not working. Think of how much energy it takes to try to be someone you aren’t, to be inauthentic every day in order to be successful. And then when women leave the office and go home, they are expected to switch gears from being like a man to being a woman who takes care of children, the house, and their men too? It’s untenable which is why I’m unmasking Barbie. Gather with me to do this!
Here is What WE Have to Do
It’s time to pull everyone out of the unconscious and into being conscious. This doesn’t mean we have to replace the male paradigm entirely. But we do need to be open to incorporating, accepting, and harnessing the female paradigm as an equally viable business approach that leads to even greater success than we’re currently experiencing. And the stats are clear that greater success is ahead of us when we do this:
Companies with 50% women in senior operating roles show 19% HIGHER return on equity (ROE) on average.
In another study done by Catalyst of fortune 500 companies, those companies with the most women directors compared to the companies with the least women directors had 26% higher return on invested capital and 16% higher return on sales. (Catalyst, The bottom Line: Corporate performance and women’s representation on boards)
Underneath it all, all of us women have a Barbie inside, or at least a version. By this I mean that we all believe that in some places in our lives we must act in a particular way to be successful, to be seen, heard or valued. We all put on a mask in some way so as to not be stereotyped, or even to just survive and not lose our jobs let alone advance. Ladies, are we ready to challenge the Barbie that is inside each of us.
The Time Has Come
It’s time to unmask our own Barbie. It’s time to stand up for ourselves and not put our own selves in the same boxes that others want to put us in. And to do this we’re going to need a paradigm shift:
A paradigm shift occurs whenever there’s a significant change in the way an individual or a group perceives something, and the old paradigm is replaced by a new way of thinking, or a new belief.
Moreover, paradigm shifts are “discontinuous”. Common wisdom has it that working ever more diligently within the existing paradigm just leads to greater frustration, not progress. Instead, we need to look at the problem in a fundamentally different way to solve the problem.1
The paradigm shift asks the question: “What today is impossible to do in your business, and believing that it can be done, would this fundamentally change the way you do business?” 2
My answer is this: To see women and men as different but as equals. The paradigm shift is about seeing business through men’s eyes and women’s eyes equally. Incorporating both the male and the female paradigm together. Side by side.
Women account for 6.4% of CEO’s in fortune 500 companies. Women make up less than 10% of the most senior level roles in Fortune 1000 companies. Yet, generally speaking, it’s proven that women are more engaged than men in corporations but they are among the least regarded. As a matter of fact, a recent study shows that women on average are 6% more engaged than men.3
In Gallop Poll, Women lead men on key workplace engagement measures. the combination of employee engagement and gender diversity resulted in 46% to 58% higher financial performance comparable revenue and net profit, respectively.4 That’s good!…progress is in this direction!
So the business case for women being as successful as men at work is documented. The only thing standing in the way is our minds, our predispositions and our unconscious biases.
So, I say, bring it on now. Barbie is doing diversity! The time is now for women to assert their value as women, a women’s way.
- Why The Paradigm Shift In Management Is So Difficult by Steve Denning
- from Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future, by Joel Arthur Barker, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992.
- Gallop Poll, Women lead men on key workplace engagement measures)
- (Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies)