Diversity measures are undermining themselves through the overuse of buzzwords. And Female leadership is just another buzzword.
“Coined in the 1990s, diversity fatigue is used to describe the stress and exhaustion associated with attempts to recruit and retain diverse talent, or lack thereof. It can manifest in several ways” (Sheratte, 2022). The most common fatigue expressions I have experienced lately are slightly detectable rolling of the eyes, accompanied by a gentle sigh and shrug of shoulders. At this juncture when the word diversity is mentioned in any conversation the response appears to be one of despair: On the one hand, those who are concerned that the initiatives are plateauing, and on the other hand those who are simply fed up with the discussion. I have concluded that diversity measures are undermining themselves through the overuse of buzzwords and the wishful waving of the magic wand of best practices.
The figures speak for themselves (Konigsburg, and Thorne at Deloitte, 2022). While progress in gender statistics is still being made, it is fair to say that the momentum has slowed. It is, however, not fair to say that diversity measures have had no impact. They have improved based on relevant quantitative metrics and continue to do so. More importantly, they have created substantial awareness on the topic. Diversity measures taken in the 20th century cannot necessarily yield the same results in the 21st because they have been exhausted and also the business context has changed.
Hence the expectations that they should, are unwarranted. Leslie (2019) suggests that “diversity initiatives produce four unintended consequence types: backfire (negative diversity goal progress), negative spillover (undesirable effects on outcomes other than diversity goal progress), positive spillover (desirable effects on outcomes other than diversity goal progress), and false progress (improved diversity metrics without true diversity goal progress).” Based on this insight these are some of the things we need to look at.
First and foremost, we need to appreciate that diversity is steered by a deeply set historical narrative that defines identities. It is not only a here-and-now subject which can be managed by compliance and policy guidelines. Understanding diversity demands a deep discourse on who you are as an individual and how you identify. “No one likes to feel like their identity is being threatened. Whether someone makes a flawed assumption about your religion, sexual orientation, or even just your favorite sports team, being treated like you’re something you’re not, can really sting. And that feeling is only natural” (Kouchaki, 2023). Understanding yourself is a powerful way of appreciating others. The depth of self-understanding can reverse the resistance towards accepting others and fuel diversity measures while controlling bias. All diversity, inclusion, or intercultural programs that focus on understanding how others behave will not be sufficient.
Redefining of work
The theory of organizations sometimes alludes to them being natural constructs like organisms. Most are not. Organizations are typically structured into linear work processes and silos supporting a definition of work that is about efficient and effective outcomes. Diversity is natural to nature. Organizations are largely not organic and therefore cannot leverage the impact of diversity. For instance, most organizations do not continually reengineer the use of their resources toward their purpose. The resources are generally not fungible. No manager in their right mind would lend their staff or budget to another area where it might be of a better use for the organization as a whole to achieve their goal. A tree will not hesitate to redirect water to the place where it can grow up closer to the sun. Most organizations are a poor imitation of nature. This is also because work has been defined as an outcome of efficient industrial processing. Some organizations are trying to introduce agile methods to mitigate this. Agility is centered around the resource knowledge which is carried by people. Therefore the urgency of measures can be wrapped around the strategic need for agility. The redefining of work is of primary importance for the impact of diversity to unfold. They call it new work nowadays.
“Prior research suggests that group cognitive diversity poses a performance tradeoff: diverse groups excel at creativity and innovation but struggle to take coordinated action” (Lix et al, 2022). When good work is defined as primarily efficient and effective and task-oriented it is less attractive to engage with diverse teams. Redefining work to something that creates value based on human capabilities not only on skills, will bring us closer to appreciating diversity as an opportunity to fuel not only agility but also innovation in organizations (see Khushk et al., 2022)
Female leadership is just a buzzword
A change in the lens of work also demands a different leadership approach, likely functional leadership (Homan et al., 2022) and even shared leadership (Chatwani, 2017), which leads us to a discussion about the distribution of power in organizations. Power distribution is the hot potato in the discourse about diversity. And no one wants to really address it. Why should anyone share their power? Instead, this discussion has taken shadowed the notion of female leadership. A buzzword that is not very convincing.
What do we really mean when we talk about female leadership? Do we simply mean people in power who allude to or demonstrate leadership attributes that we consider female because they are socialized as such through a (Western) cultural lens? Or do we mean women who identify as such in leadership positions? The current Prime Ministers of Finland and the recently resigned Jacinda Arden of New Zealand are hailed as champions of female leadership. Were Margarete Thatcher or Indira Gandhi proponents of the same female leadership? They are women after all but they had very different leadership styles.
The terminology female leadership is confusing because there is still no evidence to prove a difference. Whereas there may be a difference in leadership behaviors between male and female leaders there seem to be no differences in terms of style (e.g. Ferrari, 1991). Further, there are many mediating factors when it comes to research on leadership, notwithstanding that leadership is not even a management concept with a commonly agreed definition! Wolfram and Mohr (2010), for example, found that “female and male leaders are rated more transformational in economic sectors and working groups where they hold a minority status.”
In this sense, female leadership is actually a buzzword that draws attention to its cause. One of the most popular involves the proposition that if the Lehmann brothers were Lehman sisters the financial crisis may have been deterred. This is a well-placed assumption and certainly not completely unfounded but there is no evidence to support it (also see Saleh et al, 2022). Whereas PR and hypes are definitely important in a change initiative (see Kotter, 2007) are these stories now undermining the diversity agenda by creating hype on an unfounded basis? How can we even try to propose a leadership style that claims to reflect half the world’s population? Women, like any other group, despite their common denominator, are very diverse. This example shows clearly that it is unrealistic to speak of actionable diversity without a deeper level of differentiation and intersectionality. Yet if we continue to do so, we could be undermining what we seek to achieve.
If we would like a more inclusive society and organizations we have to stop cutting corners, promoting buzzwords and PR narratives, and start taking a deeper look at systemic issues with the seriousness they deserve. Diversity has nothing to do with inviting people to parties and asking them to dance. It is about genuine appreciation for individuals. I define diversity as the way in which each one of us is different. Diversity metrics ignore our own unique combination of traits. Increasingly, especially minorities (of which women are not one) are turning their backs on diversity measures because they do not see themselves as individuals in these.
Conclusively and ironically most diversity measures, are simply not inclusive. Although they propagate the same. Playing the metrics and number game will work to some extent of course, but will also increase the divide and may be the cause of fatigue and even regression. We need to create a mindset for diversity for it to be sustainable. This means embedding into all strategic elements of an organization and focusing on them as vital enablers of agility and innovation. This will also mean eliminating the role of DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) experts, where all such concerns were previously diverted.
Diversity trainings create divides
Taming bias through compulsory bias training has increased awareness though rarely translated into sustainable action on a wider scale. In fact, compulsory diversity training can cause resentment, and isolation and create divides. Without the proper discourse employees, desperate not to offend people who have a different background or viewpoint, end up avoiding them – the very opposite of inclusion. Further, though important, over-emphasis on quantitative metrics to measure the success of these initiatives is ignoring the intersectionality and does not respond to the emotional reaction the initiatives provoke.
We must have the courage to rock the boat and discuss and debate openly to make relevant systemic changes. Not simply best practice and hope for a magic wand. Diversity is about the next practice. Each organization is in its own context. No copy-paste. When organizations truly learn to appreciate talent, diversity measures will make sense. Perhaps eventually we may need to drop the diversity label together and call it something else. I like the term anti-inequity.
The author thanks Joseph Pelrine for his comments.
Chatwani, Neha (ed.) (2017). Distributed leadership: The dynamics of balancing leadership with followership. In Payal Kumar: Palgrave Macmillan Series on Leadership and Followership, London: Pallgrave McMillan
Ferrario, M. (1991). Sex differences in leadership style: Myth or reality? Women in Management Review, 6 (3)
Homan, A. C., Gündemir, S., Buengeler, C., & van Kleef, G. A. (2020). Leading diversity: Towards a theory of functional leadership in diverse teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(10), 1101–1128.
Khushk, A., Zengtian, Z. and Hui, Y. (2022). „Role of female leadership in corporate innovation: a systematic literature review“, Gender in Management. Available: https://www-emerald-com.pxz.iubh.de:8443/insight/content/doi/10.1108/GM-01-2022-0028/full/html
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Kouchaki, M., Leavitt, K., Zhu, L. and Klotz, A. C. (2023). Research: What Fragile Masculinity Looks Like at Work. January 26, 2023, Harvard Business Review, January 26, 2023. Available: https://hbr.org/2023/01/research-what-fragile-masculinity-looks-like-at-work
Leslie, L.M. (2019). Diversity initiative effectiveness: A typological theory of unintended consequences, Academy of Management Review, 44(3), 538–563.
Lix, K., Goldberg, A., Srivastava, S.B. and Valentine, M. (2022). Aligning Differences: Discursive Diversity and Team Performance, Management Science, 68(11), 8430–8448.
Sheratte, C. (2022). How can we stop ‘diversity fatigue’? Personnel Today. 17 Jan 2022. Available: https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/how-can-we-stop-diversity-fatigue/
Saleh, M.W. A., Zaid, M. A. A., Shurafa, R., Maigoshi, Z. S., Mansour, M. and Zaid, A. (2021). Does board gender enhance Palestinian firm performance? The moderating role of corporate social responsibility, Corporate Governance, 21 (4),685-701.
Wolfram, H-J. and Mohr, G. (2010). Gender-typicality of economic sectors and gender-composition of working groups as moderating variables in leadership research, Gender in Management: An International Journal, 25 (4), 320-339.
Dr. Neha Chatwani, Doctor in Business Administration, Master (Magister) in Psychology, certified systemic coach and change facilitator. Founder of The Workplace Atelier in Vienna, Austria, Adjunct Professor for HRM at Danube University Krems.