Checking Deep-rooted Personal Bias to Recognize Women’s Contributions


The other day I was doing a presentation to my senior leadership team on change management strategies. I had chosen one of my favourite books, Damian Hughes’ lucid and tightly composed The Barcelona Way, in which he cleverly creates the acronym BARCA to outline the five fundamental steps needed for cultural transformation; Big Picture, Arc of Change, Repetition and Ritual, Cultural Architects and Authentic Leadership.


I put together a PowerPoint with images of Barcelona players and managers, then added a picture of Peter Drucker with a quote about culture eating strategy for breakfast.


When I presented it to my team, two members pointed out that there was not a single woman in the presentation. I looked through the slides and realised the extent of my bias. Luckily, I had the chance to do the presentation to another team the next week, so I spent some of the weekend changing images and replacing them with women. I also sent the presentation back to the team with my edits, explaining what I had done and why. I thanked the team members who had called me out on it.


It was an interesting exercise that went beyond cosmetics because it made me think explicitly about female leaders, people like Michelle Obama, Mamphela Ramphele, Wangari Maathai  and Jacinda Arden, what they represent and their style of leadership. Of course, each leader is different in her own right, but there are common threads running between them: wisdom, caring for the underrepresented, sustainability and social and moral justice. Many social impact groups were founded by women. Did you know, for example, that the Black Lives Matter Movement was founded by three women? Their names are  Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.


The more I thought about it, the more I realised that my presentation on the Barcelona Way was all about strong vision and “fighting” to “arrive”. It was not just masculine in references, there is a boyish testosterone running through the ontology of this type of approach that is typified in many male leaders representing a “Great Man” ethos: historically mythologised figures such as Napoleon, Mussolini and De Gaulle.


These rigid models of domination do not represent what is needed in a complex, globalised 21st Century, most especially in a time of crisis such as the global pandemic.  A Harvard Business Review article points to fairly comprehensive surveys in the USA that indicate that women are better leaders during a crisis, outscoring men on items such as being inspiring,  motivating, communicating powerfully, knowing how to collaborate well in a team and building relationships.


At the same time, we need to be careful not to use gender stereotypes with leaders, expecting them to behave in a certain way. Some studies show that gender stereotypes have a strong, deterministic effect on mindsets and expectations around leadership. In a stereotypical work environment, women will be expected to be soft and caring while it will be seen as permissible for men to be hard and demanding. When women manifest supposedly masculine leadership traits, as was the case with world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher or Benazir Bhutto, criticism is rife, as if many wished to put them back in their place as maternal figures.


As I was working on the references and visuals for my presentation, I realised that not only were they all male, but they were all from one racial group. I diversified the references accordingly. As I did this, I started to think about the degree to which management paradigms are reflections of cultural norms and how considering different cultural approaches gives you a much more subtle palette of approaches. Southern and Eastern African paradigms of leadership, based on communal ideas such as Ubuntu , for example, are quite different to many North American ones or the regional Catalan Barcelona way, built more on linear expressions of technical targets and success strategies. At the same time, the notion of servant leadership runs through all of them as a type of unifying principle. A study on leadership styles in India showed that there was a greater value placed on long-term investment in employees than in most Germanic or Anglo-Saxon organisational cultures.


On my team we have gender parity. We also have seven different nationalities represented from several continents. This means that when we discuss issues, different cultural and gender-related sensibilities are evoked. If my team had been made up of nothing but men, who would have called me out on my presentation? If we all came from the same continent, what would have made me realise the cultural monochromatism and universalist assumptions of my presentation? How rich and varied would our decision-making processes be?


When you have a diverse team, you think twice about your own biases because you are forced to stretch out of your assumptions and comfort zone into how the idea might be received and incorporated by someone from a different set of experiences. It makes you more metacognitively aware of your tendencies and how they might be viewed. When my team did a personality trait test collectively, we saw that in the group there was real diversity in natural inclinations. This confirmed the diversity of the team and the need for us to be aware of it as something that would influence the dynamics of our work together. We are not only diverse in composition but actively aware of the challenges this diversity brings with it.


This is one of the key reasons why we need diversity in leadership teams, to stop us from all referring to the same cultural references, all having the same blind spots and assumptions and, therefore, not making the effort to be more culturally compatible with multiple stakeholders. When there is diversity, there is greater critical thinking, more accountability and more open mindedness.


The University of the People’s Advisory boards are made up of academics and leaders from South Africa, Nigeria, India, China, Egypt, the Netherlands, Finland, Spain, the United States, the UK, Israel and more. There is gender diversity and there are stakeholders from multiple educational organisations. This makes our course design more reflective of the needs of a diverse global population that is being served by what is today one of the world’s largest universities. It is interesting and rewarding in meetings to hear different viewpoints, different cultural paradigms, different experiences and how they lead to powerful decisions.



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