The path towards gender equality – re-visiting our current solution spaces

On October 24th, 2022, I had the honor and opportunity to hold an inspirational talk at EIGE’s Gender Equality Forum 2022 in Brussels. I am sharing the recording and the manuscript of my talk.

I very much like the idea of #3StepsForward. And, like most of you, I would even go a hundred steps forward at this point in time, where we are so dearly in need for gender equity in all of our systems.

I have been thinking about my three steps very thoroughly. And I struggled. I struggled with the very first step, because I wanted it to be utterly meaningful and well-designed and impact-oriented and so much more.

What I eventually came up with, might appear under-ambitious or even contrarian; before we take more steps into the directions we mostly agree on, I am convinced that we all need to take a big step back.

Repairing or healing the gender asymmetries and all the other flaws in our systems, requires us to embrace a new sensemaking, a sensemaking, that enables us to see a fuller picture. We need to re-visit our current solution-spaces and check, if we’re really creating the right solutions for the problems that matter most.

I would like to support our big step back by offering some food for thought, some potential changes of perspective. And I will do so by asking a simple question: “What if?”

“What if?” invites us – invites you – to question some of the facts we’ve been working with for quite some time. “What if” provides a new angle which might help us sharpen our perceptions about the very interventions into our systems that we’re all working on so very hard.

#1 What, if women aren’t underrepresented in leadership positions, but structurally excluded, which leads to opting-out of career opportunities not due to a lack of ambition but rather due to a precise understanding of the system?

Representation is not the same as participation. I am a strong advocate for quotas: however, a quota by itself is never the solution. It can be a strong and necessary intervention, especially from the political side in order to send a clear message to stakeholders, that the status quo is no longer acceptable. (The recent initiative for gender balance on corporate boards is a good example and a strong message.)

But representation is not achieved by implementing quotas. It’s only one criterion of a much bigger challenge: the creation of an inclusive organization.

The majority of organizations still doesn’t understand the difference between representation and participation. Or worse, they get it, but rather highlight a few token female leaders – in an otherwise unchanged male-, cis-, hetero- and white-dominated system – instead of truly investing into the necessary work.

I’ve once been approached by the CEO of a medium enterprise in Germany, who was visibly upset because “[W]e have offered the most prestigious leadership jobs to the women inside and outside our organization on a silver platter. But they refuse to take them.”

I asked him to show me what they had put on that very platter. And, of course, it was the same kind of job that would have been – and was in fact – offered to any other person before. A job attractive to older, white cishet men with zero consideration of the realities of women, whose emotional load and care responsibilities and double standards in assessing their potential are adding up to an overburden that is not at all matched by any kind of flexibility on the employers’ side.

Women don’t turn down leadership opportunities for a lack of ambition but because they know what they need. And they know exactly, that they won’t get it in an unchanged system. Because today, and that is what the story of the silver platter is all about, today, we’re expecting people to assimilate to the status quo of our already established systems.

But we can’t afford this cynical approach no longer. We can’t afford the limitation of perspectives. We’re facing multiple crises and a devastating loss of biodiversity. Our white male dominated monocultures in decision-making have led us to a point of almost no return, globally speaking.

I’m not saying that women are the solution to everything. Nor are men the origin of all evil, of course. But instead of trying to fix women, or other structurally excluded groups, we need to instead start fixing our systems. Inclusion and equity and the diverse perspective they bring are not just “nice to have”, they might just be essential to our survival.

Understanding and considering different needs and intersectional preconditions are fundamental to building inclusive cultures. Stop fixing people, fix the system.

#2 What if the focus on diversity categories, above all on gender, is not the marker of a progressive agenda, but rather the perpetuation of a complexity-reduced binary paradigm?

Many companies still believe that just by adding women or PoC or people with disabilities to their pipeline, the whole system will change. But again: representation does not automatically lead to participation.

Quite the opposite, actually. If all we do is adding people from the diversity drawing board to organizations which aren’t “culture-ready”, then we are throwing those people under the bus. “Add diversity and stir” is not a strategy. Organizational cultures often work like an immune system: They either attack or assimilate every outsider who does not behave the way they’re expected.  

Our task is complex. When we start building inclusive cultures, we are immediately confronted with this complexity. Because we’re complex human beings, which means that we are more than just men or women, black or white, disabled or not disabled. We’re all this, altogether, and in various combinations.

It’s called intersectionality: The overlapping and interdependence of all the diversity categories. The concept has been first described by Kimberlé Crenshaw and is based in the lived experience of Black women. And this intersection – being black and being female – is extremely relevant: The first categories we notice when we encounter someone we haven’t met before, are their color of skin and their gender.

Complexity is part of our modern “VUCA” world, a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We can ignore it. But if we do so, sooner or later somebody will say: “If this is your best solution, then please give me back my problems”. What I mean is: In order to create our solution-spaces, we first need to acknowledge the complexity of our challenges.

And one further remark: I do understand the frustration of feminist activists, who, after years of struggle and before their demands have even been met, are now being asked to also consider the lived experience of all marginalized people. However, we need to remember that fairness and equality aren’t zero-sum games. Equal rights for others don’t mean less rights for you. It’s not pie. You don’t have to suffer more just because you are also advocating for the rights of others.

#3 What if Diversity & Inclusion and gender equality aren’t viable solution spaces for our core problems, but substitute debates which prevent the development of post-capitalist alternatives?

I have to admit: This is a provocative question. But from time to time, we need to provoke a process of re-calibrating our strategies if we really want to bring change and create impact. Gender equity as a substitute debate? It’s not nice to be confronted with something like this, I do understand that. But think about it.

The rules of the game are being moved marginally, while the system logic itself remains fundamentally untouched. Exchanging the players in a broken system does not fix the system but it might break the players. And the meta-logic of our systems can be understood if we look at the economic spheres.

The pyramid depicts four economic spheres that are built upon each other. Each sphere emerges from, and relies on, the sphere below. Nature is the primary producer of resources for the continuation of human beings and all other species.

The production sphere is essentially dependent on the reproduction of the workforce. For instance, the financial sector rises upon the accumulation of capital generated by the production sector. Finance and production are monetized, and reproduction and nature remain in the non-monetized sphere.

Conventional economics analyses only the monetized spheres whereas feminists describe economics as a discipline concerned with all four spheres. Harmonization of the four spheres, in terms of their time cycles and resources, is necessary to prevent conflicts that could lead to crisis. For example, when the production sphere does not leave enough time for reproduction, the outcome is a crisis of care.

Feminist economists advocate for a sustainable and inclusive economics not only to overcome gender inequalities but also to transform economics into a field that aims for the reproduction and well-being of all species.

Care – or re-production – as well as our planet are suffering. Because they are being taken for granted by systems that are part of something we could call hypercapitalism.

I don’t mean to make capitalism responsible for all evil. It’s been a great system if you look at global progress over the last 150 years. But its current form leads to massive inequalities because capitalism needs growth. Never-ending growth. The required mindset shift is from extractive to regenerative.

If we’re throwing resources onto a substitute problem, the core problem remains largely untouched and the desired outcome will not be achieved.

I would like to close with one concrete example of a substitute problem: work/life compatibility. When it comes to re-entries after childbirth, we’re offering part-time positions to young mothers that often “relieve” them of in-person appointments with clients. But can you see what we’re doing here?

We’re making an offer to women, pretending to ensure work/life compatibility… an offer, that will play out to their disadvantage in the long run. Why? Because THE main requirements for advancement in an average company are long hours, constant availability and billable client facing time!

This is the dilemma I am talking about. Unless we’re willing to discuss the core problem of a system based in the hyper-capitalist growth dogma marked by constant availability, full-time or over time work and the judgment about which activities qualify as “value added”,any attempt to solve the substitute problems that derive from that, will fail.

Attempting to establish work-life compatibility in the status quo places the responsibility for work-life integration, or failure thereof, in the hands of those individuals who are doing the work. By doing so, we continue to alienate those whom we’re supposed to be doing the work for.

To conclude, here is my challenge to all of us: Instead of trying to fix surface problems, let’s ask more “what if?” questions. Let’s take a step back to understand the problem first and uncover the unseen assumptions driving it. Let’s dare to think bigger.

I have come to the end of my time. I am very grateful for this opportunity and grateful for your attention. Best of success to all of us.

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