Barbara Annis is the CEO of the consultancy she started decades ago, which has been known for the last two years as the Gender Intelligence Group.
Annis and her team go into companies and measure sexism, then devise ways to change behavior and overcome it.
The Business Tribune asked her what she thinks of the recent tidal wave of accusations against powerful men of rape, sexual assault and harassment.
"It's a good awakening, but it's all about the way we approach it," she said by phone from New York where Gender Intelligence Group is based. "There are a hell of a lot of good men out there, and if we paint all men with one brush, we make a big mistake."
Annis worked in consumer electronics sales for Sony in her 20s. "It was a very male culture. The only women at trade shows were in bikinis. I was 25, a six-foot-tall blonde from Copenhagen, I faced my own harassment from inside the company and from clients, and I never reported it because you didn't. I figured I had to be able to handle it, and tell them 'You do not get to do that', establish a healthy boundary."
When mores began to change, corporations tried to keep up but in clueless ways. "We worked on sameness, on a woman fitting in." Now it is more about men and women respecting each other's differences.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, the work was around gender equality and moving women up the ranks. It was about blaming men. What we want now is a lot more about understanding men."
She calls the situation right now "a great awakening, a paradigm shift. We don't want women walking into a victim trap again, we want to start a new conversation engaging men to break the male code."
The challenge now is about targeting the right men and finding allies.
She cites an example from five years ago. After a day of gender and diversity training at a major bank in New York, the team was out to dinner when the CEO cracked a joke. They were talking about "Bob" in the San Francisco office who was being censured for sexual harassment. The CEO said 'The problem with Bob is he didn't know harass wasn't two words.' Everyone looked to me to see how I would react but, like I should fix the situation, but I decided to let it be. Then one of the younger men, in his 30s, spoke up and said 'Maybe 20 years ago that would have been funny but not now.'"
What happened next surprised everyone.
"The CEO shook his hand and said 'That's what I want.' I don't know whether the CEO set him up for that, but the young man stood up for something, and it wasn't about blame."
Annis has had her fill of people sitting through sexist comments in meetings and them coming up to her afterwards to say they were sorry for what she had to hear.
"I'd always say, 'It'd be way better if you'd said it in the moment.'"
She compares white collar sexism to smoking. "Twenty-five years ago, if a CEO lit up a cigarette in a board meeting, you'd look for an ashtray for him. Today we'd all be 'Are you kidding me?'"
She recently witnessed a young woman in Copenhagen on a bike in short shorts passing a bunch of construction workers and no one said anything.
"We're relying on laws against catcalling rather than making it a cultural norm not to catcall."
Annis recognizes broad differences between men and women.
"There have been many Harvey Weinsteins in this world who think they can get away with it, and they don't think it's a big deal what they do."
Women, she says, ruminate on such events, because of the way their prefrontal cortex is, and the pain stays with them over a long time.
Then there is another kind of pain, when they speak up and are dismissed.
"Nothing pains women more than not to be heard and understood. For example, 72 percent of female clients fire their financial advisors within one year of a spouse passing away." Because they have been ignored and left out of the decision-making process for so long.
"Where we go from here is so important. The big question is, what do we do with what has been done?"
The Gender Intelligence Group has concluded that 60 percent of men understand there is a problem between men and women in the workplace but don't know what to do. Twenty percent know what to do and the other 20 percent don't get it and don't care.
"We need to work on the 60 percent." She says lots of men have had anti-harassment training at work which was run by lawyers and made them feel blamed. The training gave them no practical advice on things like how to give constructive feedback or how to pay a compliment.
"Training by lawyers can be sterile and politically correct. And it hurts women too because men withdraw. You can be charming without objectifying women and sexualizing them."
If she can get the 60 percent on board, then they will establish a new cultural norm and influence the rump 20 percent.
Sixes and sevens
She has worked with Richard Nesbitt, the former CEO of CIBC Global. At the Canadian stock exchange in Toronto she witnessed men holding up cards with ratings out of 10 for each female that walked across the trading floor.
Amongst Annis' clients, she praised open-minded firms such as American Express, Bank of America and Deloitte. "Inside those organizations I see fantastic change."
The work usually starts with an online survey, asking people if they feel valued by members of the opposite sex, and would they want their son or daughter to work there?
They get the leadership to buy in and be accountable, and design training around that.
Typically, much of the focus is on talent management: Companies are always assessing people on their sameness, their core competencies.
"It's very male: Do you fit in the box, do you think with strategic priorities, are you passionately committed...that usually means (non-Apple) face time at 7 p.m., or are you available 24-7? But now that we can work anywhere, a face time culture is an old culture."
In her book with Richard Nesbitt "Results at the Top: Using Gender Intelligence to Create Breakthrough Growth," she says arguments based on politics and fairness won't do as well as the economic business case for gender diversity.
If people are smart about the way genders interact, the best of both genders climb the corporate ladder and remove the glass ceiling.
She points out that IBM was the first Fortune 500 to have two reps serve every client, so the client got full attention and the reps could have a life, especially if they were women with families.
She met a young woman whose colleague from an MBA group had been in an investment bank for three years. "She asked what happened to him? He's been in this bank for three years and now he's this arrogant jerk.' What happened to him is the cultural norm. He looked for the rules and adjusted to the rules."
"When we ask 'How can we hold men and women accountable for their behavior?' That gets the antenna high up: men want to know what to do. And the fact that it's tied to their bonus gives them a huge appetite to learn."
Annis' firm stresses that gender discrimination suits are expensive and on the increase.
She tells of a Chicago investment firm she worked with. There was a man who worked with a top sales woman. They liked working with each other. "They were both Hispanic, and he used to joke 'You look hot today.' She took it for a while then began to feel uncomfortable. She reached out to Human Resources to say 'I love working with this guy but I don't know how to tell him to stop doing that.'"
Unfortunately, HR went straight to legal and had her document everything. The man was reprimanded and to protect her, she was relocated to another branch with a 90-minute commute.
"I met him, he's a good guy, he didn't know what he didn't know. Now he has this thing on his file which will hurt him. She sued and settled. Then he sued the company. His reasoning was they didn't teach him how to behave to their company values around being inclusive and respectful."
In the end it was a lose-lose-lose.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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