Michelle King, director of inclusion at Netflix, says it’s time to stop telling women to adapt to the male-dominated workplace and time for the workplace itself to change. Her prior academic research shows that diversity training and anti-harassment efforts address important issues but fall short of creating gender equality in organizations. She identifies the real obstacles and shares how leaders can create a culture of equality at work, for women and men alike. King is the author of the book The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work.
Lean in. Negotiate harder. Exude confidence but also warmth. That’s some of the advice given to women who want to advance in their careers and to be treated as equal partners in the workplace. And some of that we’ve said right here on this show. Meanwhile, organizations that espouse diversity and gender equality have been upping their game by offering unconscious bias training and anti-harassment awareness workshops.
But our guest today says that despite all the talk in the business world of achieving more equality for women, we’re still missing the mark. Michelle King spent her early career in human resources and then researched gender equality as an academic. And she says it’s time to stop telling women to work harder and to adapt–when it is the work place that has to change. And she says the recent efforts by companies to improve their work climates helping but not really tackling the core problem.
Michelle King is the director of inclusion at Netflix. And her new book is The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work. Michelle thanks for being here!
MICHELLE KING: Thanks for having me, it’s so great to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: Now you worked in human resources for a number of years before you went on to gender in organizations in a PhD program. But I’m curious what was your experience in those HR roles that made you want to dig into this difficult area of study?
MICHELLE KING: It’s really interesting working in human resources because we have so many diversity inclusion strategies that have really been around for the last decade. I’ve been implementing unconscious bias training, mentoring programs, coaching programs all aimed at women. And I would notice that year on year these programs were having very little impact in terms of changing the representation of women in leadership positions.
So, that led me down an entirely different research path, sort of almost had to start again, looking at how inequality works in workplaces, and why it is that despite women’s best efforts, and in some cases the fact that their capabilities are even better than men’s, why is it that they’re not advancing? So, what’s actually happening here. And what I found is fundamentally organizations are just not sort of set up with women in mind. And as a result, there’s a lot of barriers that women need to overcome throughout their career.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. And I’m sure you experienced much of this yourself just as a women in the workplace. But also in these HR roles you probably were in meetings where you were handling, I’m just imagining here, but I imagine you dealing with women complaining about inappropriate things a male supervisor has said, or women saying I got passed up for this job, but I feel like I’m qualified. You must have seen that kind of stuff over and over, and what did that view give you?
MICHELLE KING: You know, I remember really clearly one time working as a human resource manager for a large multinational organization and my role is to support a very senior leader with his talent management process, succession planning process, really helping him put together business cases for getting qualified people promoted to that next level.
And every year there was one female leader who would be nominated, who we’d put forward, make the case, she was a stellar performer, she had all the right leadership attributes, she consistently went over and above, she was extremely qualified. She just ticked every box. And year on year we’d find that she was pushed back. And the feedback would be really ambiguous things like she needs more time in her role, she needs to develop her judgement.
And it was just clear, her performance was so great, because every time that she was pushed back she would try even harder. And so, at this point it was just ridiculous, we had to make the case. And I remember sitting opposite the CFO when we were putting this case forward with her manager sitting there. And the CFO looked at me and he said, you know, she’s great, but she just doesn’t quite fit in. And I was like, well, what do you mean. And he said, well, you know, she’s got that clip and those glasses, and she doesn’t really fit in.
And I remember just being completely silenced, and looking around the room at all these male leaders, and realizing in that moment that this woman didn’t fit in, and she would never fit in, because she wasn’t like any of these male leaders. And that it really wasn’t her. No amount of trying harder, no amount of attending women’s conferences, no amount of mentoring, no amount of sponsorship was ever going to change this.
And in that moment, I advocated, I asked why, I asked what does this have to do with her performance. And they decided to hire her, not hire her, sorry, promote her, but it was a sort of hollow victory because now she had to work with people who didn’t really believe she was quite right, and quite sort of fitted in. And the CFO promoted her, but as he did he said, well, she’s my diversity kind of achievement for the year. And it was just that throwaway comment that immediately delegitimized her amongst her peers.
CURT NICKISCH: What is the system getting wrong? Because the system is ostensibly about rewarding results, promoting qualified people, and also doing the most with the talent you have to compete in the marketplace. But you’ve given a really glaring example of where that falls flat on its face. What’s the system getting wrong?
MICHELLE KING: If you walked into organizations today and you asked the average management or leader, how does inequality work, they wouldn’t be able to tell you. That’s a real problem, because that’s actually what we’re trying to fix. And tackling in inequality starts with understanding it. Organizations are set up by and large to support an ideal type of worker, what I call a prototype, to succeed.
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