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  • Writer's pictureJoan Hinterauer

You want diversity? Then take care of structural equality.

Diversity Month is over. The photos in which men push their female employees into the spotlight disappear on LinkedIn. Men do this patronisingly because they can. Some of the rainbow flags remain. Without question, creating awareness about this topic is important. However, even more important is what actually changes in action and behavior. It feels all a bit too shallow to me. How do you feel about it?

The diversity debate is a prime example of the superficiality in our lives. In our economy. It starts with the fact that, as always, we only see what the top part of the iceberg that lies above the water. We are talking about roughly10 to 15 percent of the actual challenge. Everything else is out of sight, which is out of the mind. Like this is not enough, we multiply this ignorance by linearity. We make it easy for ourselves and look for direct solutions of the symptoms of the 10 to 15 percent. It is like imagining, a ship is towing the iceberg to a different spot to solve the issue, which does not appear to be that big. We already know how this will turn out because we have done this over and over again the past decades in our business world, without going to the root of the issue. You can compare this with quotas, initiatives, and beautiful photos on social media.

Claudias story

To give a real-life example, let us look at the case of Claudia. Claudia is a 32 years old and works in a company with 600 employees. She has studied and has been with the company for four years now. Her boss appreciates her work, she is diligent, she has the potential to have a blooming career. In the last employee appraisals, he promised her a promotion. He said the company wants to focus more on women in the future, also in management positions. In diligent bee jobs, women already predominate today. He suggested to her to become tougher with the explanation that it is about showing yourself as a leader and pushing your own perspectives to succeed. If she would not toughen up, she would not succeed as a leader in that position and not being taken seriously.

Claudia is torn. Sure, the offer is tempting. But can she do it? Will she ever develop the required toughness?

Claudia's story is one of thousands. For which purpose do we need female managers if they are only allowed to participate under the conditions of the men's world? Only those who endure the competition, who prevail, are welcome. At some point, the quota of women will go up. But nothing much changes in behavior. The rules of the game remain the same. Because we are still only in the 10 to 15 percent.

But the question is, how do we get below the surface of the iceberg?

If there's one thing I've learned in my life so far, it's that you simply cannot change people from the outside. But what I've learned at the same time is how quickly people change when they want to and the environment creates the space for it. That is the magical formula for behavioral change. As well as for successfully lived diversity. Diversity of perspectives, opinions, skills, talents, needs and roles. The kind of diversity that brings real collaboration and co-creation that is able to adapt the ever-changing market, industry and world needs. This kind of co-creation and collaboration that unleashes in a very organic way true creativity and innovation that makes a team and organization succeed and last.

The new Claudia story from an equal environment

Let us look at Claudia again. Today she is 37 years old. Five years ago, she took the plunge into a management position. Another two years later she left the company with a burnout. She fought. But in the end, it was hopeless as a woman who does not want to completely get rid of her femininity to remain a leader in the male domain.

The good thing about it, today she has found her port. While recovering from her burnout, she had some intense conversations with her friend Simone. Simone has been telling her about her great company for years, where no managers exist. The workforce organizes itself into dynamic teams and thus makes its decisions. Claudia had previously dismissed this idea, it felt too surreal and almost like a joke. Even if it works in this company, she did not believe that there was a system behind it that could create something like that on purpose. Impacted by her experiences, she paid more and more attention to Simone's stories and applied there. Already the interview process was completely different. Instead of sitting stiffly in a room with a manager and playing this infamous role game, they went straight for a short walk during the lunch break with the majority of the team. Two of the team members talked to her one to one. And after two more meetings with the whole team, they agreed. Claudia fits in well. If she would like the salary they offered, she would be hired.

That was a little more than two years ago. Claudia traded her job for a better-paid leadership role for one more day. In the meantime, she has learned that an organization without formal leaders is anything but leaderless or disoriented. On the contrary. The main difference is that every person in this environment can take the lead, but no one has to. Claudia has already made her own experiences. After just a few weeks in the new company, she noticed that there was still an empty slot in the area of product development in the context of sustainability. She knew something about product development and the topic of sustainability and had a proposal for a sustainable product solution. Before sharing this, she felt hesitant, though, whether she can just enter that space as a freshman. So, she asked her team, and they loved her idea right away. They explained to her how she can now proceed to find out whether the idea finds support elsewhere in the company.

She turned to two employees who work as catalysts. This is the role that, in the absence of formal managers, ensures that proposals, initiatives, improvements, innovations and decisions are processed in a targeted and equal manner in dynamic teams. At first, she thought these were the hidden leaders. However, she quickly realized that these catalysts do not care about the content. They just make sure that the people who create and develop the content have a framework in which they work together well and feel safe in that space.

She went through that process with her idea. For three months, she worked with the two catalysts to prepare various surveys and workshops. Today, she still hardly believes that her product idea became the reality. In her old environment, she would have only been able to "sell" the idea to the next management level within the same time. Until this would have been implemented, if it would have been at all, it would certainly have taken another six months.

If you ask Claudia today how she describes her company, she answers: “We live real equality here. Everyone can create impact, but no one has to, which does not make people less valued or less of a part of the team. He or she drives issues of any magnitude forward if he/she finds support in the organization. Regardless of the prejudices that otherwise prevail in our companies. My whole life, not just my work life, has changed significantly for the better through this kind of work. I think that is what people talk about when they speak of meaningful and equal work.”

Quotas and programs won't fix it

Claudia's story does not come from a women's quota or a diversity program. She is not a manager. There is one significant thing that makes her be a big step ahead of most non-white males on this planet is the fact that she is part of an organization that provides structural equality.

If you would like to advocate for structured equality in your environment, then let us discuss the possibilities together. Because that is where true diversity begins.

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