by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, FACP, FACR
President and CEO, NCH Healthcare System
America has more women (162 million) than men (157 million) according to the 2014 census. How can we best harness the talent, intelligence, skill, competence, and compassion of that larger group?
Gender inequality is being actively discussed in many ways. A famous bias was recently recounted in a Harvard Business Review article by Gardiner Morse concerning the lack of female musicians in prestigious orchestras in the 1970s. At that time there were fewer than 10 percent women. By having the auditioning musicians behind a curtain (thus hiding their gender), the number of women rose to 40 percent. And the quality of the orchestras improved as nearly twice as many people competed fairly for places.
We can’t always have such simple and elegant solutions but we should try to at least recognize our innate prejudices. Much also has been written about the hiring process. Can we blind applications as to age, sex, and ethnicity to create better and fairer comparisons? For instance, current software easily allows for redacting information which might give clues and inadvertently feed into innate prejudice.
Unfortunately you just can’t outlaw bias, according to two professors of sociology, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev—one from Harvard and the other from Tel Aviv University, respectively. Even the names of these two professors and universities brings to mind different images and pre-formed attitudes.
Different words also can be encouraging or discouraging to either gender. “Nurturing, supportive, understanding and compassionate,” are all friendly to females but less so to males. Conversely, “competitive, assertive, forceful, and dynamic” all seem to imply masculinity.
Similarly, rewarding people based on self-evaluations can disadvantage those folks who are modest. More often than not, women are more modest than men in self-evaluations, thus less likely to be recognized for promotion.
To strive for true gender equality, let’s consider five general guidelines on how to interact with others at a personal or professional level.
- Collaboration is best in many ways because the sum is usually greater than the parts. The expression, “No one is as smart as all of us,” comes to mind. When we harness our energies we get a better result. “Women are more likely than men to say they make people feel important, included, and energized,” according to a classic Harvard Business Review paper entitled “Ways Women Lead.” Obviously, men can and should also be encouraged to collaborate. However, sometimes the hunter/protector instinct (which was beneficial in the caveman era) overcomes a rational approach to combine assets and abilities.
- Competing is what the ancient Roman gladiators, modern sports fans, and current politicians enjoy. Clearly there is a place for competition, which in general creates a better product or service for consumers. However, excessive or vicious competition can cause negativity and destruction. Sadly, recent political campaigns at all levels have left those elected so polarized that working back to collaboration has become difficult and sometimes impossible.
- Compromising is coming to some midpoint which is only partially satisfying to those involved. When collaboration is out of reach, then compromising can represent the next best alternative. Usually compromise leads to short-term peace but not a long-term solution. An example is the collective experience of five decades of women’s rights organizing giving individual girls or women schooling, jobs, loans, access to political office, or legal redress. These actions may empower women individually, but do not necessarily translate into a better deal for other women. Deeper and more inclusive change in the status of women can only be achieved by demand-driven approaches—by mobilizing women and building their collective power to act together for their vision of a more just society. Even when women’s rights organizations and movements catalyze transformative change, these gains must be defended, protected, and sustained. Today, women’s rights victories that were won decades ago are under fresh threat of reversal as backlash against the advances made by women are being witnessed around the world, from the most developed to the most impoverished countries and societies
- Accommodating occurs when one side gives up and the other side gets their way. Again, not always a satisfying experience and accommodation may be fraught with later backlash and animosity. Societal pressure plays a big role here. According to statistics by the Center for Disease Control, suicide is four times higher among men than it is women. “Suicide needs to be addressed as a health and gender inequality—an avoidable difference in health and length of life that … affects men more because of the way society expects them to behave,” according to a report by Samaritans, a U.K.-based suicide-prevention organization. Bringing men into the conversation on gender equality takes a step toward breaking down expectations of both genders. As UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson said in a recent speech, “It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals.”
- Avoiding is the last common mechanism of interacting or not interacting with others. Going around a concern or problem usually just delays and subsequently magnifies the difficulties of getting to a real solution. Consider the SATs, which are administered to approximately 1.3 million high school students annually. They have had a known gender bias in favor of males in the past, but this bias was not corrected until a few years ago. Research indicates that males are more likely to take risks on the test and guess when they do not know the answer, whereas females tend to answer the question only if they are sure they are correct. Unwillingness to make educated guesses on this exam can have a significant negative impact on scores. What can we do as a society to move to a more just culture for all? Interestingly, fathers of daughters are the best advocates for everyone having a fair chance to thrive in education, the workplace, and society in general. Title IX came about in a large measure by dads who wanted the same opportunities for their daughters as was available for their sons. Statistics show that a father’s caring presence can make all the difference in raising a daughter who strives to reach her potential. How to Father a Successful Daughter, a book by Nicky Marone, gives men high-quality parenting skills that will promote self-esteem and confidence in their daughters. In a culture where everyone thrives, we harness everyone’s potential. That’s a driving force behind gender equality and encourages everyone to lead a longer, happier, and healthier life.