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Grease the Gears of Equality

September 1, 1995
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Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Diversity, Featured Article
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As a Personnel Journal subscriber, you've read our previous cover stories on sexual harassment, domestic violence and gender politics. Each story attempted to shed light on some of the burning issues that primarily affect women in the workplace and collectively have stimulated some dialogue. In the following article, Diane C. Harris further explores the manifestations of power. In particular, she asks whether there are any similarities between the elements of power and control in a domestic violence situation and the mindset of power and abuse in the workplace.

Two years ago, I accepted an invitation to speak about the glass ceiling, and particularly, about how it affects women in Corporate America. I hesitated at first, because I'm neither an expert on this topic nor a human resources professional. However, during the last decade as a chief negotiator in acquisitions and divestitures for Rochester, New York-based Bausch & Lomb, I've worked with hundreds of companies around the world. Some were brimming with technology and growth. Others were deeply troubled organizations. These experiences have allowed me to have a broad view of management's use of power.

In the course of preparing for my presentation, I became aware of the Wheel of Power and Control, a framework developed by the Duluth, Minnesota-based Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. The Wheel identifies eight tactics used by abusive men to exert power and control over women. I began to see a relationship between these eight tactics of domestic abuse and the corresponding lack of a supportive business environment for women. It also made me think about the problems associated with diversity in a new way.

"I began to see a relationship between these eight tactics of domestic abuse and the lack of a supportive business environment for women."

Diversity training historically has focused on the issues of gender and race. The exercise of power has been viewed as a byproduct of diversity success. But suppose power itself is at the root of diversity issues. What would be the ramifications for diversity programs and change agents, such as HR professionals? What if power—not gender or race—gives rise to the glass ceiling? Moreover, a glass ceiling can't be held up except by glass walls—the additional invisible barriers that prevent women and minorities from communication with their peers, cross-training and development, and advancement.

The glass walls that women experience clearly have similarities to the glass walls that people of color, the disabled, older and other differentiated employees experience. And the higher one moves in a corporation, the thicker glass walls become. For example, at lower levels, competence is enough. At the top of the organizational pyramid, however, chemistry—that nebulous quality of being in the club—increasingly is required. For many women, being at the top is like playing a guessing game in the dark. The very lack of information creates fear and miscommunication. When hopes are crushed, many women feel disenfranchised and angry. It's hard enough for white males to make the chemistry work—you can imagine how much more difficult it is for women and minorities. But when the chemistry between people is strong, the situation is more open for practices such as mentoring. Without mentoring, the power barrier is extremely difficult to transcend.

Upon further reflection, it also seemed that the eight factors of domestic power reported by these Duluth women also could apply to the workplace. Dozens of executive-level women who have experienced subtle or overt manifestations of power and control have confirmed such similarities. The following (which may also apply to a woman stuck below the glass ceiling and wedged in between glass walls) are descriptions of the eight factors: sexual abuse, economic abuse, emotional abuse, isolation, intimidation, male privilege, threats and the use of children. I also pose a view that you as HR managers might find useful. Consider it a diagnostic tool with which to evaluate your workplace.

Power and control at home may have parallels at work.
Look around. When you're walking down the corridor or eating in the company cafeteria, check whether sexual harassment or abuse appear in the form of sexual jokes or innuendos. Isn't there a similarity between saying or doing things that treat a woman like a sex object at home and using sexual imagery and words in business to make her feel uncomfortable? Many women can attest to such incidents.

"Clearly, HR managers have a key role to play in catalyzing their companies to move from a Wheel of Power culture to a much healthier model."

What about economic abuse? The parallel at work would be the female employee's lower earning capacity. Or, perhaps, the parallel might manifest as a dead-end job path. Couldn't tactics that undermine her economic advancement, that give her less budgetary discretion than male peers, also be considered economic abuse? When a woman steps into a job previously held by a man, and earns less than he, such discrimination must be considered a business form of economic abuse. Another example might be the male supervisor who expects women to absorb the lack of staff support by making her work overtime or by relegating her solely to clerical tasks.

Then there's emotional abuse. Although most forms of abuse toward women are inflicted by someone else, women also can undermine themselves. For instance, how many times have you heard your female colleagues make self-effacing remarks or belittle their own achievements? Women often feel they never seem to "thread the needle correctly." They feel as though they can never get things quite right. Sound familiar? In the workplace, you might find a female employee who doesn't believe she's quite ready for that next promotion. Nevertheless, she's the first to step forward to train her successor or her manager's successor instead.

Isolation is another form of power and control. In fact, it's one of the oldest political punishments—used to exile convicts in ancient Greece. Could the workplace that visibly encourages male-bonding golf games, hunting clubs, drinks after work (or other activities to which women are often neither invited nor welcome) qualify as isolation tactics? Isolation can mean never being treated as a full member of the team, being kept as an individual contributor but not allowed to lead others—especially men. One of the most common forms of isolation in business is being left out of the vital information flow. Isolation may also include a supervisor's refusal to provide a woman with the same amount of mentoring and coaching as a man at the same level. Couldn't the constant attention to her as the only woman in a group also create a strong sense of isolation, such as apologizing to her after deliberately using sexist or offensive language? Such abuses only add to a woman's self-consciousness and lowered self-esteem.

There's more. Intimidation, for example, is another form of power and control. It certainly has different manifestations in business than in domestic violence. But couldn't repeated interruptions in meetings or not listening to a woman's recommendations be considered forms of intimidation? Think of all the times you've heard a woman reminded that she's different, that she doesn't have the male experience of military service or team sports. Intimidation also could include playing up fear of failure so that she won't take the same risks as her male peers. Or, if she does take the risks, some might intimidate her by reacting to her actions differently, and by treating those accomplishments as exceptions. Other types of intimidation include using diminutives, such as "girls," as well as flattery and attention to disarm her. If she's prevented from doing her job because of inadequate resources, one could argue that such intimidation tactics reduce the female employee to a lower level of performance. Subsequently, a woman is judged a low-potential employee, one without the ability to assume higher levels of responsibilities. If she buys into this rationale, hasn't she been intimidated not to push the glass ceiling any further?

Add to the list male privilege. This form of control might even apply to a condescending relationship disguised as mentoring. Or indulging other men's disdain for working for a woman, and assigning lower-performing males to a team headed by a woman. Isn't male privilege involved when special organizational arrangements are made because of a woman's presence in the hierarchy? When top management promotions are considered, are men often considered immediately? Male privilege is at its strongest when males are the principal gatekeepers to the corporate process of identifying high potentials.

And how about threats? They're usually obvious when they surface as sexual harassment. But women also have been reluctant to speak out on behalf of other women because they fear retribution. Some are afraid to join networks for mutual support. Not surprisingly, many women are afraid to push for change in the corporate culture for fear of punishment or loss of a pay increase. Isn't one of most women's biggest fears that of losing the resources needed to handle their current jobs or—the ultimate threat—losing their jobs? These threats are precisely what make a woman put up with so many abuses.

The final element on the Wheel of Power and Control is the use of children. As long as American businesses ignore the needs of working parents—safe daycare, more flexible working hours and maternity leave without seriously jeopardizing women's careers—children will continue to be used against women in their careers.

Women need options for confronting abuse.
Your answers to the above-mentioned factors can determine whether or not the Wheel of Power and Control in domestic violence is applicable to your workplace. If it does apply to women, then could it not also apply to other differentiated groups as well? If elements of this Wheel contribute to the foundation of glass walls, then they need to be removed to bring down the glass ceiling. I often ask women to recall their own three worst experiences in business. I usually find that their incidents fall somewhere on this Wheel of Power and Control.

Unfortunately, many of the women I know in managerial and executive positions are loathe to speak out publicly on their personal experiences. In some cases, they believe it's too demeaning or embarrassing. In many cases, they just shrug it off and pursue their careers, hoping things will be better the next time. Many of the events they could cite somehow seem too petty to mention. The truth is—except for blatant power plays such as sexual harassment—very few incidents do seem worth the time it takes to inform management or the risk of confronting the perpetrator and being branded a troublemaker. After all, women don't want to be perceived as whiners or complainers.

"Keeping one’s word is the most essential ingredient of a successful business relationship. Trust is the most fragile element in any relationship."

But the isolated or single incident isn't the main problem. It's the culture of incidents; a lifetime of small, seemingly insignificant occurrences that create a hostile, even toxic, environment. Someone once said no raindrop considers itself responsible for the flood. This Wheel of Power and Control isn't ultimately about gender-bias or race-bias. It's about power—who has it and who doesn't have it, who keeps it and who has trouble getting it. In the words of award-winning novelist William Gaddis: "Power doesn't corrupt people; people corrupt power." This statement is still relevant today as we struggle with creating diverse cultures in our corporations.

Women caught in domestic abuse say that they don't have a choice. For years, women haven't had a multitude of choices in business either. Even if they remain in the company—indifferent or just burned-out—the company will be the ultimate loser. But as some companies do create more positive environments, and as women form their own companies, all women will have a wider range of work options. Moreover, they'll be attracted to support more progressive and diverse companies in the future. Perhaps the exodus of many women from Corporate America can be seen as an early warning sign, sharing something in common with the canary in the coal mine: We ignore it at our peril!

Fortunately, women are beginning to realize they do have choices. Some of their choices can help to change the corporate environment itself. But for major change to occur, it will require significant change agents. Clearly, HR managers have a key role to play in catalyzing their companies to move from a Wheel of Power and Control culture to a far healthier model—the Wheel of Equality, also developed by the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. Based on nonviolence, the Wheel of Equality suggests ways to build a better work situation for women or minorities in the corporate hierarchy. It can also help elucidate the principles upon which a culture of diversity could be built. Each of the Wheel's eight elements has a message for enhancing gender-related diversity programs. They include: honesty and accountability, trust and support, respect, nonthreatening behavior, negotiation and fairness, economic partnership, shared responsibility and responsible parenting.

Honesty and accountability seem to be the basis for any successful relationship. Open communication is key to unlocking a culture of honesty and accountability. Performance appraisals must be more than just feedback on the past; they need to be a plan for the future. Managers mustn't withhold genuine feedback because of legal fears and emotional barriers.

As companies move toward empowerment programs, honesty and accountability will be fundamental to the success of such programs. Nobody's perfect. Mistakes are bound to happen in business and in one's personal life. Therefore, admitting mistakes is fundamental to building the kind of business environment in which individuals can be honest and accountable for their actions. It's key to women's success that they openly discuss the issues that impede their effectiveness.

The second element of the Wheel of Equality, trust and support, is mutually dependent on the first. Without honesty and accountability, it's difficult to develop trust and support. Keeping one's word is the most essential ingredient of a successful business relationship. Trust is the most fragile element in any relationship. It can take years to build. It also can be irreversibly damaged in one thoughtless moment. Mutual trust and support are becoming increasingly important as corporations create workteams. Unless trust and support flow in all directions, it won't be possible to give up the competitive and adversarial spirit often found in companies.

As women and minorities move into more leadership positions in companies, new cultural models will evolve in the workplace. Perhaps one of them might mirror the best of adult sibling interactions, based on mutual trust and support.

Another segment on the Wheel of Equality is respect. Respect implies much more than tolerance. True respect is based on accepting who the other person is, and caring about who she or he wants to become. Respect for diversity implies embracing diversity wholeheartedly, neither ignoring differences nor allowing them to become divisive. Too often, society has swung from prejudice and bias to outright indifference. From a purely practical point of view, how will corporations be able to capture the benefits of diversity if diversity itself is ignored? Each person is different and has unique contributions to make. Ignoring differences implies they have no value. Thus, one loses the benefits of diversity. Diversity in an environment of respect, however, will optimize the benefits found in the differences among people.

"The higher the level a woman or minority achieves, the more additional training and development should be offered. Not to do so is tokenism at its worst."

Communication is fundamental to respect.
One gender can learn from the other. It means acknowledging there's more than one approach to a task. One way to begin to understand and hear the other gender is through diversity or gender-awareness training and workshops. But there's no point in mandating such training for the lower levels of a company if top management hasn't participated first.

Too often, as glass walls and ceilings are approached, training ceases. Yet, the higher the level achieved by women or minorities (and, therefore, the greater the company's investment in them), the more additional training and development should be offered. Not to do so is tokenism at its worst. Development programs, regardless of employee level, are clear signals of management's support and intentions.

Human resources managers should learn to cultivate another equality element: nonthreatening behavior. It's the responsibility of a leader to keep meetings focused on business. Keep comments collegial. Avoid put-downs or exclusionary tactics. These are simply good manners in social situations. But occasionally, these conventions need to be retaught and role-modeled in the business environment. Another strategy to reduce threatening behavior can be the anonymous forum, in which employees bring issues of concern to top management's attention without simultaneously directing attention and potential retribution to themselves.

The threat of losing one's job for identifying problems and communicating concerns can be greatly minimized by true accountability. The perpetrator of a threatening environment has to be held accountable, no matter how good his or her other business accomplishments may be. Direct attention and rewards to those who successfully implement diversity.

Negotiation and fairness is the fifth segment of the Wheel of Equality. Nothing breaks trust faster than an inherent sense of unfairness. This implies that there should be a basic fairness in the way employees are evaluated and promoted. HR managers should use objective criteria instead of basing decisions on collective impressions—primarily, those of white males. Too many corporate succession-planning systems are based on the blackball tactics of college fraternities.

Programs may be established for high potential employees, but gatekeeping (how high potentials are identified) is too often a deep mystery. Guidelines should be clearly established, in writing, not only for promotion and reward, but also for the entire succession-planning system. All employees need to perceive fairness throughout the system if they're expected to be fair to others. A wide range of employees should provide input when the company is identifying high-potential employees, including network members and people exercising mentoring roles.

Replace dictatorial and authoritarian styles by accommodating and negotiating to effectively utilize a diverse work force. But nowhere is the test of fairness more apparent than in the hiring and promotion process. Women should request, negotiate and receive, in writing, the steps necessary to achieve a promotion and move to the next level of responsibility—not promises, but opportunity. Women and minorities are really asking for a level playing field, where competence—not chemistry—prevails, where accomplishment is rewarded and where invisible barriers don't stand in the way. A meritocracy is a long-term vision; in the short-term, it must start with changes in behavior, whether they are mandated or voluntary.

One problem is that most recruitment practices are filtered through the minds and attitudes of a company's screeners, interviewers and hirers. It isn't sufficient to just locate the right female and minority candidate. It's also necessary to create among the screeners, interviewers and hiring managers—from personnel directors to top corporate management—appropriate mindsets with which to review such candidates. If, for example, a personnel director has interviewed hundreds of white male executive candidates, any new candidate being presented may encompass several aspects of the executives with whom he's had previous experience. The candidate may be intellectual like one white male colleague, talk like a second, dress like a third, show leadership like a fourth and so on. The point is that the interviewer, screener or hiring manager has a pretty good sense of what the successful white male executive candidate should look like.

If, however, the interviewer has had access to only a few competent female (or minority) candidates, the range of acceptable candidates will be severely limited in his own mind. Thus, when an appropriate female candidate is presented, he may be unable to recognize success characteristics. Great strides have been made to remove gender biases from tests, but not from the interview process. The more experienced executive search and referral firms are enormously helpful in finding the right candidates, but those candidates will be hired only if the training has been provided and the right mindsets are in place among interviewers inside the company. Such training could encompass special courses, exposure to a variety of successful women or minorities from all walks of life, an awareness checklist of reminders and a buddy system in interviewing that ensures a fair process.

The sixth segment, economic partnership, is the basic business contract between management and employees. This formula is changing. It's no longer either a day's pay for a day's work, or a lifetime employment promise. People expect a balance between what they put into a job and what they get out. They're looking for a partnership attitude, not an unbreakable contract. Fairness, trust, honesty and mutual respect are intrinsic to the partnership. This means retraining employees with obsolete skills, continuing development and education, and investing in the economic partnership of employer and employee. Some examples are cafeteria-benefits offerings, flexible working hours and job sharing.

Economic partnership needs to be practiced with all employees, including the largest pool of women in American business today—secretaries. Secretaries work closely on a daily basis with all levels of management. Yet they often aren't offered a career ladder, given a personal-development plan or even recognized for their accomplishments. In many companies, secretaries have become an appendage of their bosses, gaining or losing stature based on his (or her) accomplishments. One way to begin making the corporate environment more equitable to secretaries is by offering career paths. Why is this important for breaking glass ceilings and walls? Because the work environment in which top women find themselves can't be any more open, healthy, fair or opportune than the culture in which most of the female work force already finds itself.

Shared responsibility, the seventh sector of the Wheel of Equality, also parallels the workplace. Women often feel pressure to prove themselves, to do twice as much, to be twice as fast and twice as good as their male peers. To compound the problems, successful women may have become that eye of the needle through which other women have to pass—thus raising the performance hurdle even higher. Often, both management and female employees have been willing to accept that high level of productivity and the price it carries. Women report feeling harried. They suffer particular difficulties in securing extra resources, staff and budget. What's called for is more shared responsibility—a fairer distribution of work—which presupposes systems that track work and measure contribution. Management should make sure that not only are the workloads fair and the rewards appropriate, but that women and minorities truly have the resources that they need to get their job done well.

Besides hiring women, nurture their careers and also track why they leave. A company must understand why one person didn't join the company, and especially why another left. Conduct blind surveys of current female and minority employees to determine the real problems, not what management or human resources speculates are the problems. Use outside consultants and in-depth exit interviews on a confidential basis. Conduct them with every woman who leaves the company, voluntarily or not.

Finally, the eighth segment of the Wheel of Equality is responsible parenting. Clearly, there's no way to encourage full participation by women at all levels of the work force without addressing the child-care issue. Companies that acknowledge this issue and provide resources are among the most desirable employers for both men and women with family responsibilities. Interestingly, this particular segment has already received a lot of attention—through work-family programs. But balanced action, in all elements of equality, is what's really needed.

HR executives can become key change agents.
The Wheel of Equality has a great deal to say about what the corporation of the future will look like if it hopes to attract, retain and develop its women, minority and other differentiated employees. But how do we get there from here? Simply understanding the Wheel of Equality won't guarantee results. Corporate America must also respond to both internal and external change agents.

Internally, that means change should be led and supported by top management, which believes in the power of diversity. Nothing will happen without the involvement of top executives. Those who rise to the occasion will become tomorrow's leaders—and the benchmark against which others will measure themselves. Peer pressure and competition will help effect the change. And women and minorities should continue to ask for specific programs and commitments. Top-management women and female members of boards of directors need to keep asking the questions, coaching, mentoring and monitoring the changes. In spite of the risks, women must take initiative in pushing the diversity activities within their own companies. Silence condones the status quo.

Some change agents will emerge from outside the company: the increasing strength of cross-border competition, the lack of competitive global products, the need to understand and compete for an increasingly diverse customer base.

But at Bausch & Lomb, our CEO has encouraged the formation of both the Women's and Minority Networks. I've since grouped the elements we're using on a Wheel of Diversity—the transition activities leading from the Wheel of Power and Control to the Wheel of Equality. Indeed, the transition from power to equality can be facilitated at the workplace in the following ways: open communications, establishment of women's networks, gender-diversity training, encouragement of management's behavior modification, open recruitment and written guidelines for promotion, creation of a balanced and nurturing environment, effective mentoring programs, sufficient resources to do the job, confidential exit interviews with feedback to top management and establishment of work-family programs. To achieve these elements, top management's and human resources' commitment and involvement must become the lubricant that turns the Wheel of Diversity.

I recall an image I saw in West Berlin 30 years ago: It was a bridge built halfway across a river, reaching out like a hand to East Germany. The West Germans hoped that someday a span of bridge would come across from the other side to meet it. It took decades, but today there's one Berlin, one Germany. Communicating with one another, like the bridge, allows us to reach out.

Personnel Journal, September 1995, Vol. 74, No. 9, pp. 120-127.

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