Can we overcome the zero-sum game of gender politics?

The world of women and men working together in business and industry is changing slowly. Women are making gains in C-suites and boardrooms, in middle management and in professional school enrollments. These gains, however, are often viewed as a zero-sum game — a gain in position, power and influence for women means a commensurate loss for men. We win; you lose.

Not surprisingly, these perceptions foster resentment of and resistance to advancing women in leadership. Does it have to be that way?

A male perspective

Michael Kimmel, author of “Angry White Men,” addresses this in his TED Talk “Why gender equality is good for everyone”:

I was on a TV talk show opposite four white men. The title of this show was “A black woman stole my job.” These men believed that they were the victims of reverse discrimination in the workplace. They all told stories about how they were qualified for jobs, qualified for promotions, but didn’t get them.

When it was my turn to speak, I said, “I have just one question for you guys, and it’s about one word in the title of the show. I want to know about the word “my.” Where did you get the idea it was your job?

Because without confronting men’s sense of entitlement, I don’t think we’ll ever understand why so many men resist gender equality

Gender equality is in our interest as men, Kimmel says. Gender equality is actually a way for us to get the lives we want to live.

According to most studies, countries that are the most gender-equal score the highest on the happiness scale. Research also has shown that the more gender-equal companies are, the better it is for workers. There is lower job turnover and higher rates of productivity.

Overcome the fallacy

Ginni Rometty, chair, president and CEO of IBM, and Mary Barra, chair and CEO of General Motors Company, are excellent examples of women in male-dominated fields who have demonstrated the fallacy of zero-sum gender politics in business. These women were not given positions that rightfully “belonged” to a male colleague.

Rometty joined IBM in 1981 as a systems engineer with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and electrical engineering. Barra, with a degree in electrical engineering, joined GM in 1980, later earning an MBA. They rose through the ranks over many years with one company — able to ascend based upon their own capabilities and a lot of persistence.

Today, are women “winners” and men “losers” at IBM and GM because women lead these companies? No.

Author and Yogi Dave Ursillo writes that the “not-enough-to-go-around” zero-sum outlook creates a hoarder’s mentality in which we view “the other” as competitors ready to take away the comfort of tradition.

Instead, he says, when we learn to see others as contemporaries from whom we can learn, we realize a million new opportunities to grow as people and as professionals.

We can, and we must, release old habits and overcome outdated thinking, working together — not just for our own ends as female (or male) leaders, but also for the success of our companies and for the good of society.


Becky S. Cornett is a member of the WELD Impact Committee, and Barb Smoot is the president and CEO of WELD, Women for Economic and Leadership Development, which desires to increase the number of women in business and government leadership in Central Ohio.