Invisible Rules – a Conversation with Paul Harrietha
A Conversation with co-author Paul Harrietha
A new book offers a ready-made blueprint for aspiring female leaders looking to ignite their careers – and organizations committed to gender-equity.
We sat down with Paul Harrietha, a co-author of Invisible Rules – What’s really holding women back in business – and how to fix it. Invisible Rules explores why despite all the effort to increase the number of women in corporate leadership, women still only hold 10% of the highest-paying jobs.
The authors of this book, Paul, a former CEO, and Holly, an accomplished academic, argue that women are held back by a series of invisible rules that tilt the playing field in favour of white men. They back up their case with deep interviews with 50 senior female Canadian executives who talk about the real-life challenges in the C-Suite and on the way up.
What was your motivation for writing the book and what got you interested in gender equity?
The book (and my passion for gender equity) was inspired my wife, who is a very senior executive. For her, it’s a good news story, and she got to the top of the house – but like so many women, it took her way longer than it should have. Like so many women, she plateaued at the senior management level and watched her male counterparts (less experienced and less qualified, in many cases) pass her by.
This led me to question, why? What is it in the pipeline, or the DNA of organizations, that causes women to pause, or be forced to pause, and make a judgement about whether they continue to pursue this career or abandon it and go into non-traditional roles? When I did my Ph.D., I decided to explore why women continue to be so drastically underrepresented at the senior leadership levels and what we can do about it.
What did you find in your research? Why do women only occupy 10% of the highest paying jobs?
That’s the million-dollar question. It’s really an absurdity that we’re having this discussion in 2021. And if you had asked the female leaders we interviewed for the book 25 or 30 years ago if we’d be having this discussion, they would have dismissed the notion and predicted that we would have made all kinds of progress. They would have said that it’s a generational challenge and our society will move on from this. But that didn’t happen.
So, we asked what is corrosive in the pipeline? Why do most women continue to stall on their climb up the corporate ladder?
The answer is nuanced and complex, but virtually everyone we talked to identified four “big” biases or barriers that women face that simply make it more difficult for females than their male colleagues to get ahead.
- Prove it again – men get promoted on the basis of potential, whereas women have to prove themselves repeatedly.
- Tightrope – women are required to walk a line between gender norms and leadership norms. They often must decide to be viewed as likeable or a leader-like – it’s tough to be both. If you’re too likeable, you’re dismissed as too “soft” to be a leader, and if you’re too assertive, you are dismissed for being unlikeable.
- Maternal wall – women tend to have disproportional domestic responsibilities that men don’t typically have to balance.
- Tug of war – there’s an unfortunate tendency for women to judge other women based on what they wear, how they conduct themselves in the workplace, how they socialize and others – which can create conflict rather than cooperation.
Collectively, these challenges make it much more difficult for women to pursue their leadership aspirations than it is for their male colleagues. The four biases are obviously developed in far greater detail in the book.
Do men have a role in supporting more women in taking on senior leadership roles?
Women are underrepresented largely because Canadian business is a patriarchy! We have a white, male-dominated environment, and until men change their attitudes and perceptions and behaviours, it’s going to be extremely difficult for women to break into the upper echelons on an equal basis.
The positive thing is that, as a former executive and proxy for old, white, male leaders, I can confirm that there’s no conspiracy or brotherhood that says, ‘we should keep all the women off to the side.’ It really comes down to a lack of awareness and a naivete around the biases we just explained. I didn’t understand them when I was an executive. I thought I was a fairly liberal, progressive male and I didn’t realize that many of my hiring and promotional practices reinforced many of the challenges women face. It wasn’t until I wrote my thesis that I learned how deeply engrained and “invisible” these biases actually are.
What can men in leadership positions and corporations do to support women?
We didn’t want to suggest with the book that achieving gender equity is a woman’s responsibility and obligation. If women could have done things differently, they would have, and these issues would have gone away a long time ago. So, if we are going to see meaningful change, we need it to come from leadership and, specifically, male leadership.
It’s incumbent on white men like me to say to our peers that they fundamentally have to change their behaviour, or they run the risk of failing from a business perspective. The studies tell us that, if you have a diverse board and diverse c-suite, you’re likely to perform better as an organization. So, diversity becomes a fundamental business issue. If organizations don’t step up and bring the best possible talent to the table, they are going to become uncompetitive over time in a global environment.
What’s the competitive advantage of having women in senior leadership roles?
Causation and correlation are challenging to determine, but we do see that diverse organizations outperform organizations that are more homogenous. The question is, do they outperform because they are more diverse, or are they more diverse because they are progressive and forward-thinking? We don’t know which is which, but we know that, especially in innovative environments, there tends to be more creative abrasion, where you bring different ideas to the table and use your best possible ideas to be creative and reflect an increasingly global client base.
The other thing I would suggest is that we look at the recent COVID-19 implications. Countries that have been led by females have dramatically outperformed countries that have been led by males. It’s the sort of thoughtfulness and compassion demonstrated that will help to enhance any board or any c-suite moving forward.
Aside from profitability, in what ways do diverse organizations outperform?
As we noted, diverse organizations often tend to see enhanced levels of innovation. There is also a perception that women tend to be more risk-averse, but we find that that is not true at board levels. We tend to find that, on boards, women are more accepting of risk than men, but it’s an informed risk because women have done their homework. That notion generates better business outcomes, and enhanced risk, if informed, is really where you are going to drive innovation and growth.
What’s the value of sponsorship and how can I find a sponsor?
The view in life is that this is a meritocracy and if I do well, I will get to the top. But the reality is that most people don’t climb the corporate ladder, they get dragged up it by the people who want to see them succeed. It’s different than mentorship in that sponsorship is formal and a commitment. The great difference is that a mentor speaks with you, and a sponsor speaks for you. If we were to give anyone a singular piece of advice, it would be to find a sponsor. It should ideally be someone within the organization because they have clout with the other leaders and senior decision-makers.
It doesn’t matter if that sponsor is a woman or a man. In a perfect world, it’d be a woman, but the unfortunate reality is that there are not enough women in those senior roles to be a sponsor to young women. Now, the onus should be on the senior leader to find someone to sponsor who doesn’t look like them. The reality is that you will probably also get some wonderful reverse mentorship that can help influence the leader’s perspective going forward.
Is there a role for governments here and are there policy tools that can be used to support women in leadership?
This is not a question we asked. But in my personal opinion, from a policy perspective, the government should provide universal daycare. And that’s not just a female issue, that’s a human issue. By providing this essential service, you open up flexibility for families and take much of the financial and psychological burden off of both the parents, which makes it easier for women to focus day-to-day on their business lives. It’s easy but expensive, but studies show the economic benefits of universal childcare make it self-funding.
We should also make it easier for women to pursue elected office. If we can get more women contributing to debates about social, political, and economic decisions, we will have better outcomes as a country, and it will be self-perpetuating. It’s hard to imagine it if you can’t see it – so, the more women we have holding elected positions, the easier in will be to attract more women to these essential roles.
What’s your perspective on quotas?
A lot of women we talked to said they don’t like the idea of quotas but believe it’s time for organizations to assign quotas if they are really committed to women in leadership. What gets measured gets managed.
There’s a lot of support for the idea that any publicly funded organization should have a mandated board distribution. That is, if the organization is publicly funded, it must have certain demographics on its board. There was mixed support for the idea of imposing quotas on publicly traded organizations.
Either way, this is not about affirmative action. It’s not about putting people who are underqualified into a role because of their gender, race, or other factor. Instead, it’s about taking the time that’s necessary to find superior candidates who have otherwise been denied those opportunities because of those identifying factors. We found that there were a lot of people who said that once they looked at it that way, putting in the extra time to find the “best possible candidate” was totally worth it.
You can also manage quotas by building them into incentives for the c-suite, such that you must meet your targets or you don’t get your full bonus. When you tie issues to compensation and performance measures, the culture will change very quickly.
Does the type and size of the organization matter? Are smaller organizations more successful?
In large organizations, we often see a lot of smoke but very little fire. It tends to translate into employee resource groups, speeches, lunch-and-learns, etc. that don’t actually have a meaningful impact at the top of the house. I worry that we are trying to create this as a bottom-up solution, but it needs to be top-down with white males taking responsibility and accountability.
Invariably, people will say to me ‘we’re all for diversity but we have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to hire the best possible person.’ And invariably, that person is someone they know that comes from their same privileged networks. So, until they change that behaviour, you’re not going to see meaningful change in the senior leadership ranks.
What can organizations be doing in the short term?
There are three things beyond progressive HR practices:
- De-bias hiring and promotion activities – that can be done quite easily with AI tools and other innovative strategies.
- Fix pay – look at what men are making and what women are making and equalize it. Simple.
- Flexibility without guilt – organizations have to stop promoting flex time, flex hours, etc. as a favour to women, but instead need to position flexibility as a wellness opportunity for all employees – male and female – and ensure that men take advantage of the available opportunities to help with family, raise children, and look after themselves (like we all need to do in order to be the most productive people we can be).