Gender diversity and the secret history of Wonder Woman

This article originally appeared on Scott Farley’s blog, The Bold Red Line.

Today’s efforts are an echo of what women have been demanding for decades.

I’ve been doing some traveling in the last two weeks, and spending a lot of time on airplanes. And that’s meant quite a bit of reading. I started with Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book about women in the workplace, and the ways that companies, families, and individuals need to contribute to making real progress toward gender equality. It was a timely read, because discussions about gender diversity have been very much on my mind of late.

In my most recent post on my blog, I referenced that my company, Joy Global, is working to develop our first multi-year Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) strategy. And it’s been clear from the very start that gender diversity will be a critical area of early emphasis.

When I talk with my female colleagues, including some members of our D&I Advisory Council, a conundrum starts to emerge pretty quickly. There is certainly an approach that a number of companies have successfully undertaken, whereby programs are developed with the specific intent of developing female leaders. What’s more, I see an increasing amount of learning content being developed by key vendor partners that is aimed at teaching best practices to women who want to rise within the ranks of their organizations.

The flip side of the issue lies is a perspective that’s been voiced by a number of women that I’ve spoken to, noting that they don’t want to be set apart through specific programs, classes, or even affinity groups. Understandably, they don’t want to create any sort of perception that their accomplishments are due to programmatic advantages. They want their successes to be their own – and really, who wouldn’t want that?

Sheryl Sandberg’s take on the topic of gender diversity starts with a desire to see more women in senior leadership roles across more companies, institutions, and governments. She makes the point that women in leadership roles have a platform, an opportunity, and a responsibility to create policies and programs that can tear down the subtle and not-so-subtle barriers that impede true inclusion. And this is where I see the wisdom of creating specific leadership learning opportunities for women. There need to be catalysts that move us toward more gender diversity in our leadership ranks. Because once more women are there, we can create a virtuous cycle together, where the most talented individuals from any gender are presented with opportunities to succeed.

Sandberg also points out the role of men – as allies and partners – in supporting the growth and success of women in the workplace. She talks at length about the 50/50 partnership that she and her husband try to maintain at home, whereby household and childcare responsibilities are shouldered equally by both partners. I was fortunate to grow up in a household where I saw the example of a father who shopped for groceries, did the majority of the cooking, and played an active role as a parent. And my wife and I have always shared the work of parenting and maintaining our household so that she could pursue her call to ordained ministry while I engage passionately in my own work.

It’s an essential point that Sandberg makes, looking outside of the workplace to look at the way that female leaders are supported (or not) when they arrive back at home at the end of a day. We need to look at ways to actively remove barriers to opportunity at work. AND we all need to support each other at home.

Scott Farley's Wonder WomanSo I finished Lean In shortly before landing in Brisbane, Australia, for a week of succession planning and other meetings. And while I was in Brisbane, I was reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. As I sat at dinner the other night, reading about the feminist influences that guided the creation of an iconic comic-book hero, I was confronted with this:

“When she does as much work outside the home as her husband, there would seem to be no reason why she should in the future be responsible for all domestic chores.”

That was from Woman’s Dilemma by Alice Beal Parsons. And it was written in 1926.

I had to pause for a moment, to let this sink in. Sandberg’s TED talk and her subsequent book have energized a conversation about women in the workplace. But it’s not new ground. Turns out it’s not even close. These arguments and challenges that Sheryl Sandberg has set forth are an echo of what women have been demanding for decades.

And that felt a bit discouraging. I found myself wondering if women in 1926 thought that they were on the brink of a significant social change that would impact the home and the workplace. (According to Lepore, they did.) It made me wonder if we’re any closer today.

But when I come back to the research and benchmarking I’ve been doing for the last 18 months, I’m filled with hope. The conversation we’re having now is, admittedly, a retread of conversations that have happened over the last several decades. But so much of this is about awareness, and the tools that allow people to drive change. The fact that you’re reading this on a website, or via LinkedIn, or via Twitter, points to the fact that we have more tools at our disposal to engage with more people on this topic. There are successes that others have had that we can point to, and choose to adopt or adapt to drive successes of our own.

I say “our” because I believe that we each have a role to play in creating opportunities for one another, regardless of gender. I’ve devoted my career to the idea that change and growth and improvement help each of us as individuals. And I sincerely believe that individual success can help organizations and communities thrive.

Getting to a better place with regard to gender equality isn’t easy, or we’d have done it by now. We need to continue to challenge each other, lean on each other, and lean in to the hard work of making our workplaces more inclusive.

Scott Farley

Director, Learning & Development at Joy Global
Scott is a seasoned talent management professional, focused on leveraging integrated talent and learning solutions to support business strategy. Recently, Scott has taken the lead in defining the Diversity & Inclusion strategy at Joy Global. He is actively involved in benchmarking with, and learning from, established D&I professionals, as well as sharing his own thoughts through live panels and presentations, blogging, and other social media.

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