If Your Company Isn’t ‘Gender Bilingual,’ You’re Missing Out

Globalization has led companies to grow managers who are multicultural and multilingual. They have invested millions in learning the culture and language of the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians. An increasing share of most corporate revenues now stem from these countries.

But how much have companies spent learning the language and culture of women? Women’s global income is rising fast and is set to hit some $14 trillion by 2014. That is more than the total GDP of India and China combined. There is a huge business benefit for companies to equip their managers to become fully “gender bilingual” (i.e., fluently understanding both men and women and the differences between them.)

Clearly, this is a win-win. But the whole gender topic has been misframed and miscommunicated for so long that it’s almost impossible to dig oneself out of old ways of thinking. As a result, managers fall somewhere on the spectrum between total ignorance and extreme gender fatigue. The former group has never thought about the topic for a moment of their business lives. The latter group, mostly in American and British companies, has been beaten over the head with training on stereotypes, discrimination, sexual harassment and most recently “unconscious bias” for much of their careers.

The raft of accusatory vocabulary that makes men feel guilty for two millennia of human history is not, I would suggest, the best way to get them excited about gender balancing their business. Switching the frame — and the language — from the “problem of women” to the “business opportunities of balance” can go a long way in enlisting support.

In my experience, most men are enthusiastic supporters of gender balance. In fact, once they get it, many are better agents of change than women are. Why? First, because they are not defensive about the issue, they can be much pushier on the subject, whereas women who push for balance can sometimes be perceived as lobbying for their own “camp.” Second, it is still mostly men who are in power today, so they are the ones who have the means to make change happen.

So just in time for this year’s International Women’s Day — and if you really want to support women and their progress — remember these simple rules:

1. Focus on the majority in your company — they are the ones who need to change.

2. Get all managers to become “gender bilingual,” or fluent in the language and culture of both men and women, and the differences between them.

3. Have credible, respected men lead the charge on gender issues.

4. Never use the word “women” — talk about “balance” or “talent” or “customers.”

5. Don’t accuse men of being responsible for the lack of balance today; instead, make them accountable for balancing tomorrow.

And finally, consider rebranding International Women’s Day inside your company to Gender Bilingualism Day. It will send a loud message. And invite everyone in your organization to celebrate the benefits that balance brings.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is CEO of gender consultancy 20-first as well as author of HOW Women Mean Business. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.