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  • Corporate news
  • 07-03-2023

Is the Zuidas a male bastion? Consider the following: of the 42 nominees for the 2022 M&A Award, 41 were men. This telling statistic prompted a critical LinkedIn post by NautaDutilh partner Petra Zijp asking what needs to happen to give talented female dealmakers the opportunity to shine. In response to the many comments on her post, NautaDutilh organised a roundtable with a panel of business leaders and a renowned diversity consultant. More than 100 people joined in on 22 February to compare notes and discuss what is needed to bring about real change. Below are the three main takeaways.

1. Diversity is a fact, belonging is what counts

Despite the growing focus on diversity, most Zuidas companies do not yet reflect our 'genderful world'. The main obstacle appears to be their business models, which are based on masculine values focusing primarily on performance and winning. These are risk factors for a psychologically unsafe culture with high risk of harm. In these models, stereotypical male traits, such as dominance, ambition and rationality, take precedence over alleged feminine values, such as empathy, caring and vulnerability. To reach the top, women either adopt masculine behaviour or work on developing such behaviour in leadership programmes. With this, they must resign themselves to the 'tightrope bias', namely that people rarely sympathise with women who behave assertively. There is a downside to this gender stereotyping for men as well: like women, they cannot be who they want to be and earn less if their colleagues label them 'nice'.

Many companies are using bias training to teach managers to recognise this systemic inequality, alongside leadership training for women, for example. They are working hard to increase the influx of women, people of color and LGBTQIA+ people. Ultimately, however, the results have been disappointing. Diversity is increasing, but progress is slow and promotions to top jobs remain unusual. The biggest challenge is to retain and support employees from different backgrounds as they move up the ladder. "In the end, it's about the vulnerability of those who feel unacknowledged, seen or respected. I realise that as a white male from a privileged background, I have never had to fight my way into a team and cannot know what it's like to be the only woman attending a partners' meeting," one of the attending leaders said.

2. Modern leadership inspires greater inclusion

The speakers emphasised that the definition of leadership has changed from hierarchical to adaptive, and that that change hinges on leaders listening, daring to be vulnerable and making firm choices. That is quite a challenge in a field where leadership and emotional intelligence are not inextricably linked. According to research, what leaders in organisations say and do makes up to a 70% difference in whether employees feel included there. To transform their organisation, leaders must change themselves first. It is too easy to say that the younger generation will have to step up and make a difference. Leaders too must be aware of setting an example, especially when it comes to listening, communicating and collaborating.

The roundtable participants swapped several practical tips for leaders:

  • Communicate openly and actively about gender and cultural diversity
  • Embrace the differences that exist and discuss diversity at every opportunity
  • Make people aware of unconscious prejudices and address their behaviour and biases
  • Develop comprehensive solutions by making the interaction between different forms of discrimination visible (intersectionality)
  • Agree on ambitious targets and be accountable for delivering them
  • Encourage and guide all talents in their development
  • Take steps to ensure employees from diverse backgrounds have equal access to promotions
  • Facilitate gender transition leave
  • Engage with young professionals about their ideas and practical solutions
  • Offer employees flexibility to combine work and personal life
  • Serve as a role model: work four days, take on child care responsibilities, take a sabbatical from work…

3. Building an inclusive workplace requires reflection, cooperation and action

Diversity is a given, not a choice. Being diverse and inclusive makes it easier for an organisation to attract and retain talent. When it comes to innovative thinking and giving clients inventive advice, you'll go a lot farther if you can look at things from a variety of different angles. It's no coincidence that more and more clients are asking about team diversity. "Diversity is pretty much the only thing that keeps me awake at night," admitted one of the executives who attended. "Most of all, I want to know what I personally can do to be on an equal footing as a dealmaker," stressed a female roundtable participant. Her comment garnered strong support. There is clearly a real need to discuss this topic, and to turn ideas and ambitions into specific actions.

Shared conclusion

The time has come for an inclusive business model that delivers sustainable social and financial returns, and is based on a broader standard and new definition of success. Firm commitments are needed to initiate the necessary changes. Examples of these include diversity quotas, accountability for failure to meet targets, and preferential measures when the board composition is tipped heavily towards men. Roundtable initiator Petra Zijp stated the shared conclusion. "Increasing diversity and inclusion requires willingness to take action as well as reflection. We must reflect regularly on how we are doing and how we can do better. Let's reach out to one another so that we can move forward together. There is still plenty for us to talk about in our sector."


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