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The gender of business leaders will be irrelevant sooner than you think. Here's why

LET'S get uncomfortable for a moment. It's 2020, and yet we're all bubbling with biases, both conscious and unconscious, open and hidden. I'm not talking about whether you prefer tea or coffee, morning or evening, Debussy or Drake.

Preferences are a matter of taste and - if not imposed on others - do no harm. Biases, in contrast, can inflict enormous damage, whether to individuals or a broader group.

The biases I'm talking about here are the assumptions we make about groups of people. Some may be steeped in at least a limited truth; more often, they're baseless.

I'll admit to at least a couple of the latter. As a fast-talking New Yorker (born there, raised in New Jersey - a place that inspires its own biases), there was a time when I unfairly equated words per minute with mental acuity.

I'd find myself talking with someone who had a languid drawl and practically jump out of my skin in my impatience to get them to the end of each sentence.

Now that I've worked with people of pretty much every geography, I've come to appreciate that some insights are worth the wait.

I also had a bit of a bias in favour of fellow Ivy Leaguers - until I realised that most of the brightest people I know were educated in schools I'd never heard of or didn't pursue higher education. Word to the wise for those stressed-out parents of teens: There is life without a diploma from Harvard, Yale, Brown or Penn.

Several years ago, I listened to a fascinating interview on NPR in which Shankar Vedantam spoke with Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji about her book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

Ms Banaji discussed the case of Carla Kaplan, who had gone to Yale New Haven Hospital with a badly injured hand.

When Professor Kaplan arrived at the ER, she stressed that she was an avid quilter - and thus was anxious to retain full use of her hand.

The doctor was giving her standard, perfectly adequate care until a student happened by who addressed the patient as "Professor Kaplan".

Upon learning that the injured woman he was stitching up was a professor at Yale, the doctor stopped what he was doing and called in a team of specialists. That made all the difference to her outcome.

The interview was helpful to me because it underscored that biases needn't be intentionally negative. The ER doctor wasn't trying to harm Prof Kaplan in any way; he simply was offering the standard treatment for such an injury. When he discovered her connection to Yale, he and his fellow doctors then went above and beyond to ensure she received the best available care.

Making an extra effort

It made me realise how easy it is to extend an extra dose of grace to people with whom I share some sort of connection, whether through my alma mater, friends or family, gender or some other commonality.

I am not intentionally harming anyone else by helping these people, but am I unwittingly harming someone by not making that extra effort on their behalf simply because we don't share a valued connection?

When I scan the room in business meetings, I'm struck by most often being one of the few women in the room.

Many people would attribute the imbalance to gender bias. And I think they're correct - only probably not for the reasons they think.

Too many of us look for instances of men being outwardly biased against women. And those biases absolutely exist. There are plenty of men who, even in 2020, don't consider most women smart/hardworking/dedicated/tough/ambitious enough.

For the most part, though, I think the bias goes in the other direction. Men are giving men - unconsciously, I would like to think - preferential treatment because they feel an immediate connection to them.

And this is where I think there is hope for a real change in the world of business. We have finally reached the point where business leaders recognise the value of diversity. Of people coming to decisions from radically different angles.

In this knowledge economy, nothing matters more than ideas - and it's becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the best ideas come from diverse teams. If everyone starts off on the same page, it's pretty likely they'll stay within the limiting confines of the existing book.

It's easy to get caught up in the rhetoric of gender inequality when study after study demonstrates that companies that are more gender balanced perform better financially.

Instead of naming and shaming organisations for outdated gender imbalances, I'm all for taking action to double down on diversity in all its forms starting with gender balance as a not-so-secret weapon.

There's no question that equal pay for equal work in corporate America and across the world is fair, necessary, and long overdue. It shouldn't be considered a demand; rather, it's what we all have a right to expect.

Addressing gender parity

Working practices, regardless of whether we are talking about a Fortune 100 company or small to midsized business, need much more of an overhaul to address gender parity. The structures and patterns in the world of work are still manmade, stemming from the postwar era of man as the breadwinner and woman as the homemaker.

Despite progress in recent years, it's painfully clear to me that women today bear the heavier burden balancing work and family. Women with more to juggle on the climb have to make difficult choices about what, where and how.

The key is to level the playing through flexible programs that afford women the same career opportunities as men and removing barriers that mitigate against equality in the workplace and society.

I've always been a pragmatist, but I genuinely foresee a time in the not-too-distant future in which the gender of business leaders has become irrelevant.

With the mercurial fluidity of business today, ambitious gender-equality targets, and the inescapable fact that women - in more developed countries at least - are becoming equally if not better educated than men, I can envisage senior management teams at most large companies being pretty much gender-balanced by the end of this decade.

It occurs to me that working in a company that's committed to gender equality has given rise to its own bias. Today, when I see an organisation (even my own) in which leadership positions are held overwhelmingly by men, I get suspicious. I think: What else haven't we figured out yet?

  • Marian Salzman is senior vice- president, Global Communications at Philip Morris International (PMI)