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If you want to guarantee growth, prosperity and an inclusive, diverse company culture, gender intelligence must be part of your strategy

By Jess Campbell

Imagine the world’s most popular manufacturer of mobile devices and technology. Every day, this company sells millions of pieces of technology, having spent years to ensure its perfection. One day, a news story breaks concerning the way that technology responds to some very specific questions. Users can tell their technology that they might be having a heart attack; that technology tells them

where the three nearest hospitals are and asks if it should call the user an ambulance. Users can also tell their technology that they’ve just been raped.

Their technology tells them that it doesn’t understand. Cue a news story going viral, and not in a good way.

That is a summary of an actual situation involving Apple’s Siri technology and how it responded to the experience of its various users. It’s also a perfect example of the critical importance of gender intelligence. (Siri technology has since been updated.)

The gist of GI

We all carry biases with us every day, whether we’re conscious of them or not. Siri’s response to a user being raped was likely based on the bias – or, put another way, the life experience – of the developer(s) who wrote the original response code, people whose life experience didn’t necessarily involve the potential to be raped. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 90 per cent of American adult rape victims are female. With that in mind, one could argue that had Apple employed more women on their Siri technology development team, then the Siri response fiasco could have been avoided and users who had been raped could have been given a much more intelligent and helpful response.

For decades, our society has been fighting gender bias in the workplace, pay equity arguably being the most prominent. Gender intelligence is about understanding that men and women are inherently different but that they bring equally valuable perspectives to the table. Cathy Gallagher-Louisy is the senior director, Consulting, at the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI). She says that building gender intelligence within work teams is critical to finding the best solutions to problems.

“A lot of research has shown that diverse perspectives enhance a leadership team, or any kind of team,” she said. “The gender intelligence piece of team-building is making sure you have different people with different qualities and life experiences who can bring these things to the team to develop better solutions.”

Barbara Annis is an expert on inclusive leadership through gender and cultural intelligence and the founding partner of the Gender Intelligence Group (GIG).

“We’ve been working on gender equality in Western society for over 40 years, equating to two things. One is a numbers game. The other is the idea that men and women are more or less the same,” said Annis. “Gender intelligence is about differences, that men and women may not be equal in numbers but they’re equal in value.”


The majority of research and work conducted on gender intelligence focuses on gender as a binary term, meaning men or women. So far, it does not include those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ). With that in mind, it’s important to consider that sex and gender are not the same thing. When a child is born, they have either male or female sex organs. (Very rarely is a child born with both, but it does happen.) Thus, the child’s sex is either male or female.

Gender, on the other hand, is in the brain and is how that child identifies with being either male or female, regardless of their sex at birth. While there is much fantastic research indicating that men’s and women’s brains work differently, there remains the question of nature versus nurture: how boys and girls are taught to behave based on their sex (not gender) and how that affects the development of the brain. As the study and application of gender intelligences grows and changes, the needs, values and perspectives of those who identify as LGBTQ must be accepted and included to foster true gender intelligence throughout organizations and society.

Understand and know

Although gender intelligence isn’t necessarily a new concept, it isn’t something that all organizations are willing to foster just yet.

“Part of the problem with our society is that there are a lot of people who believe we already have equality when we do not,” said Gallagher-Louisy. “There are demonstrated disadvantages and barriers for certain groups to succeed. For example, the experience of a white woman is very different from the experience of a lesbian woman of colour.”

Yet, people are beginning to look beyond equality and see the importance of inclusion.

“Now, I really see a shift,” said Annis. “We want to create cultures that value differences, cultures where people feel valued and included.”

It’s the existence of barriers and the idea of sameness that gender intelligence works to dismantle so that everyone has an opportunity to be heard and understood.

Gender intelligence within an organization is about gaining a deep level of knowledge through study.

“We do a lot of measurement and analytics with companies to understand the issues in that company and the cultural competence of their leaders,” said Gallagher-Louisy. “We look at demographics in hierarchical levels, different regions and types of jobs to see if there are gaps against what you’d expect. We do focus groups and interviews so we can get really specific around the experiences people in the organization are having to show the leadership team what’s actually happening.”

Annis says that GIG incorporates a model they call Knowledge, Strategy and Intelligence (KSI) to assist organizations in getting started with gender intelligence.

“What we’ve found over the last 27 years is that companies tend to go to strategy too soon. They don’t stay in the knowledge space to make sure they understand the root cause of their culture. If you go to strategy too soon, you end up doing what we call a ‘window dressing initiative.’ For example, saying, ‘Our competitors are doing this so we should do it, too.’ But if it doesn’t solve for what’s actually going on, it’s money and time wasted.”

Conducting in-depth analyses of your organizational culture can be intimidating and the results can sometimes be tough to take, even when the strategic management of those results can make or break your organization in the long run. According to Gallagher-Louisy, the senior leadership team and human resources need to be sure they’re in touch with what’s happening in the organization.

“What we’ve seen repeatedly is that senior leaders and human resources think the organization is more inclusive than the average of all employees,” she said. “We’ve also found that senior leaders are not aware of the extent to which people are dealing with things like discrimination or harassment on a daily basis. Doing measurements and gathering qualitative and quantitative feedback from employees helps us to quantify what is actually happening that senior leaders may not be aware of.”

“Part of the problem with our society is that there are a lot of people who believe we already have equality when we do not.”
– Cathy Gallagher-Louisy

Gender intelligence isn’t about hiring more women; it’s about understanding the culture of your organization and how that culture is helping – or hindering – your level of success, financial and otherwise.

“You can have great gender balance on boards or executive teams and zero gender intelligence,” said Annis. “We see that having greater gender intelligence impacts how you think about going to market. The correlation between gender intelligence and financial performance is really the bottom line. The key element to fix any issue is knowledge; focus on gender differences – what men and women value as clients, how not to misinterpret those differences, how to honour them. That’s really what makes the difference: understanding.”

Future intellect

The acceptance of data by senior leadership teams and their willingness to participate in fostering gender intelligence is and will continue to be crucial to changing the way society’s organizations function. Gender issues in the workplace will not simply vanish once a certain number of women are present, even though that was one of many assumptions made years ago when organizations began looking at gender differences.

“We put the cart before the horse,” said Annis. “We made a bunch of assumptions, like if we just educate more women, time will take care of it. We’ve assumed that if the pipeline has some form of gender balance, we’re good. But now, here we are. We have all these women but no plans to retain them and no plans to advance them. And we have to do better.”

“We’re still talking about this because of bias, plain and simple,” said Gallagher-Louisy. “For most of us, biases are unconscious and unquestioned. Women have been achieving more undergrad degrees than men since the 1979-1980 school year and it hasn’t dropped below 50 per cent since then. You’d think in 37 years, women would have climbed the ranks and be close to equality. Well, women make up about 5 per cent of CEOs on the FP 500. If you look at top earners, less than 10 per cent are women. There’s a pyramid; the higher you climb, the less women there are. Sexism in our organizations is pervasive. Women across all sectors get interrupted in meetings more often than men but it’s men and other women who are interrupting them. So, clearly there’s an unconscious bias influencing that behaviour.”

In her 2010 TED Talk, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spoke to the importance of gender intelligence in society:

“The data shows this very clearly – if a woman and a man work full time and have a child, the woman does twice the amount of housework than the man and three times the amount of childcare than the man. So, she’s got three jobs and he has one. Who do you think drops out when someone needs to be home more? As a society, we put more pressure on our boys to succeed than we do our girls. If a little boy shows leadership, he’s a boss. If a little girl shows leadership, she’s bossy. This is the other side of the gender equality argument.”

Building a gender intelligent society is more complicated and involves more than changing organizational cultures. It begins with an individual shift in mindset, a willingness to acknowledge our own biases and the drive to make the changes that are necessary for everyone to have a seat at the table and have their perspectives understood and valued. n

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