Are Women In Leadership Programmes Positive Discrimination?

This is a recurring conversation, and actually, one that we used to strongly be on the other side of, until we started to do more work within the women in leadership agenda.

When people would talk about positive discrimination, our opinion was always the same – it wasn’t right, or fair. But as we started to do more work in diversity and inclusion, and in particular in the women in leadership agenda, we realised, that actually this conversation often blurs the lines between positive discrimination and positive action, and in actual fact, without positive action, it is very difficult for most organisations to achieve true equality goals.

Positive Discrimination vs Positive Action

Let’s look first at the true definition of positive discrimination versus positive action:

Positive Discrimination: the practice or policy of favouring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously.

Positive Action: the action of encouraging and training people from under-represented groups to help them overcome disadvantages in competing with other applicants.

The two are not the same thing, and shouldn’t be grouped as that way. When you differentiate the two, creating a playing field that is more equal (positive action) is not the same as promoting the wrong people just to hit a diversity statistic (positive discrimination).

The part of the positive action statement “under-represented groups” is key as it helps you determine where you need to focus your efforts. In the case of women in leadership, if you are a business that has good levels of diversity on your board, consistently has women climbing the ranks, doing exciting projects, fronting the big deals, then this group is not “under-represented” therefore you may not need positive action in the women in leadership area, unless it is to continue the efforts you already have.

But, if those aren’t scenarios that are apparent in your business, and you’re a long way off equally representing women in your senior roles, you might just need to even the playing field. Even it to a point where there are different success stereotypes in your business, where there are ways for women to progress as equally as men, where you can make hiring decisions based on the best person for the job from an equal mix of people.

What Are The Benefits of Gender Diversity In Leadership?

There are so many – diversity of thinking, perspective, different backgrounds and opinions, different lens views to make decisions with, but there is also hard numbers. Here’s just some from a study McKinsey completed:

  1. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity at the executive level are 21% more likely to generate higher profits and 27% more likely to have superior value creation.
  2. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams are 1/3 more likely to have industry-leading profitability.
  3. What’s more, if your leadership is homogenous, there’s a negative impact on your bottom line. Those companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic/cultural diversity are 29% less likely to be above average in profitability.

For a real life example of this in practice – enter Samsung’s advert featuring a woman running alone at night, through dark streets, with earbuds in. It is the perfect example of how decisions can go wrong without diversity of thinking around a table. If women had been at that table it is highly likely they would have shared their own experience that the vast majority of women would not ever do what the advert portrayed. Lived experience, and diversity of that lived experience, makes for extremely valuable decisions in business.

Women In Leadership – Positive Action In Practice

So what does this look like in practice in the world of work?

Let’s imagine you run a construction company. The leadership team comprises of only men, and you would like to start to increase the number of women in leadership. You advertise an open leadership role and 5 men apply and only 1 woman, if you appoint that woman simply because of the need to fill a statistic without considering her aptitude against the other male applicants – that’s positive discrimination and unlikely to do anything positive for your business.

On the other hand if you take a step back and assess ways in which you can encourage more women to apply to senior vacancies such as including an open recruiting day aimed purely at women, alongside traditional recruiting efforts and you find that you then have 10 CVs, made up of 5 females and 5 males – you can choose the applicant that is most suited to the role, regardless of gender, but from an even playing field. This is an example of positive action.

Actions To Take

So, does all of this mean that you need to take positive action within your business when it comes to women in leadership? Potentially.

Here are some useful questions, specifically relating to women in leadership and leadership gender diversity that might inform your answer:

  • Are there any practices that could be taking one gender out of the running for promotions? *This is especially common in traditional partnership structures where often to become a partner you have to do a lot of out of hours networking, you may need to be more aggressive with your pursuit of the role, the hours you work often counts for more than the output of the hours, etc.
  • Are women given credit in the same way as male counterparts?
  • Do the same people get the high-profile assignments?
  • How does your organisation help with work/life balance?
  • Is the workplace designed so all will be comfortable?

If we want to keep it really simple –

  • What is the current split of your senior leadership team male to female?
  • Do you have both female and male success stereotypes and leadership role models in your business? Is this equally weighted?

That’s usually your leading indicator, and if the answer is highly weighted one way or another, positive action might just be the thing you need to even the playing field, and net the results that greater diversity brings.

If any of this article has stimulated some interesting thoughts for you, and you wanted to chat through how it impacts your business, and whether our Women In Leadership programme could add value, please reach out!