Gender Equity Is Not Zero Sum

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To make progress toward gender equity, men need to be involved. But zero-sum bias often deters men from engaging in the conversation (let alone taking action) because it fuels the belief that men must sacrifice their resources or stature for women to earn a place at the table. Although zero-sum thinking is invalidated by the data, it pervades the workplace equity narrative.

Fortunately, organizations can take specific actions to overcome the zero-sum bias among male employees and move the needle on matters of gender equity: quantify gender equity in terms of economic gains for the company; hold leaders accountable for change by tying DEI metrics to performance reviews; offer development opportunities to increase gender intelligence, empathy, and self-efficacy; pull back the curtain on misperceived social norms; encourage cross-gender professional relationships; and frame, focus, and integrate interventions into core business outcomes and mission.

It’s easy to see why men are reluctant to engage in gender equity conversations. Why would they want to join a movement routinely framed as a women’s issue, with men identified as the problem? Why would they seek to participate in such a corporate extracurricular if they believe it will come at the expense of their professional stature?

But we need to engage men if we want to make progress toward gender equity. On the basis of our research, we find that one of the best ways to bring more men into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives starts with busting the zero-sum bias that disincentivizes male participation.

By definition, zero-sum situations create winners and losers whose goals are at odds with each other. For zero-sum thinkers, the world is binary: Either I win and you lose, or you win and I lose. Mutually beneficial outcomes are never considered. This thinking — often implicit and automatic — leads to unnecessary division and tension.

Examples of the zero-sum bias are all around us, from the debate stage to the negotiation table to the narratives that shape workplace DEI initiatives. When it comes to gender equity, zero-sum bias deters men from even engaging in the conversation (let alone taking action) because it fuels the belief that men cannot thrive in tandem with women — that they must sacrifice their resources or stature for women to earn a place at the table. Although zero-sum thinking is invalidated by the data, it pervades the workplace equity narrative.

And without men (the leaders of 82% of all firms globally), DEI efforts will fall short. They are already doing so. From 2019 to 2020 we moved backwards, adding 55 years to the estimated time needed to close the gender gap in economic equality. Without substantive change, we may have to wait another 257 years before the gap is closed.​ And gender disparities are only widening during the pandemic. The situation for women of color is especially dire. Black women, for instance, have not only faced higher unemployment rates since the start of the pandemic but have also seen an increase in unemployment month after month. Since February, more than 1.4 million jobs held by Black women have evaporated. That’s a particularly harrowing statistic when one considers that 51% of all Black U.S. households with children depend on breadwinner moms.

There’s a real benefit for organizations to achieving gender equity. Businesses that commit to closing their gender equity gaps across all races and ethnicities enjoy increased profitability and returns on equity, productivity, and innovation; a greater ability to attract and retain top talent; and revenue gains. Research by Pipeline across 4,161 companies in 29 countries shows that for every 10% increase in gender equity, businesses see a 1% to 2% increase in revenue.

We cannot afford to wait centuries for men to fully engage as accomplices and advocates in achieving full gender parity in the workplace, especially at a time when our economic recovery depends on the equitable inclusion of employees. Here are six actions to help organizations overcome the zero-sum bias among male employees, move the needle on matters of equity, and reap the financial upside.

1. Quantify gender equity in terms of economic gains for the company. This will remove the notion of a fixed economic pie and show that improving gender equity expands the pie for everyone. When making the case, bring evidence to show how men benefit when women and people of color are fully and equitably included at all levels of leadership. Research shows that organizations with equitable representation are more successful, profitable, and innovative, which benefits men. These desirable outcomes are facilitated by the increased access to information, greater diversity of networks, and enhanced interpersonal skills that men reap from being part of a more diverse and inclusive organization.

2. Hold leaders accountable for change by tying DEI metrics to performance reviews. Businesses rely on data to measure progress toward their objectives. That’s why implementing a standard DEI scorecard will play a critical role in closing intersectional gender gaps. The scorecard needs to track metrics at every stage of the employee lifecycle and on every step of the corporate ladder. It also needs to disaggregate data by gender and race, at the least, so that leaders can understand the breadth of intersectional employee experiences. Leaders should make this process transparent by publishing quarterly progress checks and annual diversity reports.

3. Offer development opportunities to increase gender intelligence, empathy, and self-efficacy. Increasing awareness of women’s experiences and challenges in the workplace is foundational to changing attitudes about gender bias and sexism and providing empathic motivation. Interventions and trainings such as Pennsylvania State University’s Workshop Activity for Gender Equity Simulation (WAGES) and LeanIn’s 50 Ways to Fight Bias create a setting where managers and employees can discuss topics such as sexism and gender bias. A candid setting can minimize zero-sum reactance and denial, fostering a workplace where employees learn to take immediate action for positive change and to develop empathy for colleagues. And when employees rely on one other to accomplish their work, psychological safety and trust — key ingredients in employee engagement — grow.

4. Pull back the curtain on misperceived social norms. Research shows that men think that other men have a high level of acceptance of sexism — but in reality, most men don’t explicitly endorse sexism. This misconception creates a group dynamic whereby men reinforce sexist behavior and zero-sum thinking through conformity. The good news is that often it takes just one man speaking up to change the dynamic. Leadership training that employs a bystander intervention methodology, perspective taking, and self-persuasion activities can also change sexist attitudes tied to zero-sum perspectives.

5. Establish cross-gender professional relationships. Positive social interactions in a professional setting that emphasize learning, self-awareness, personal growth, and collaboration break down stereotypes, prejudice, and zero-sum bias. Mentoring relationships can be especially powerful bridges to positive interaction. The best mentorships promote both personal and professional growth for the mentee and the mentor alike. This interpersonal bond can be attributed to the mere exposure effect: When we spend more time with people, we grow to like them and break down previous social barriers such as faulty zero-sum thinking.

6. Frame, focus, and integrate interventions into core business outcomes and mission. Too often DEI initiatives focus on telling those in the majority what they should not do in relation to underrepresented groups as part of broad mandatory compliance-oriented training. Instead, focus on what we should all do that emphasizes a shared identity — what all employees have in common as members of your organization (for example, “Tweeps” at Twitter appreciate diverse perspectives and foster collaboration). Then, focus on inclusive behaviors and values that improve business outcomes. For example, if safety is critical to your organization, employ interventions and strategies that create a culture of openness and transparent sharing of lessons learned. Openness and transparency make it obvious when there are gender inequities. If innovation is important, create a work environment where people feel comfortable making mistakes and collaborating on diverse teams. Humility and collaboration are hallmarks of organizational cultures that value equity.

Dismantling systemic barriers to gender equity such as sexism and zero-sum bias will require practical changes to workplace behavior and culture. Organizations that follow the recommendations above will break down biases and encourage men to take on a much-need role as allies and advocates.

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