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27 Jul. 2012 | Comments (0)


Years ago in Atlanta, Georgia USA, actor Ruby Dee altered the way I thought about the acceptable pace of change to achieve transformations in Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) work. Dee recalled the lyrics of an anthem that had inspired and empowered people during the U.S. Civil Rights era, a grass roots movement for social justice and equality for African Americans during the 1950’s and 60’s.


We shall overcome, we shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
 We shall overcome some day


With a smile, Dee shared that when she and her husband sang that song, they altered the words.  Rather than singing, “We shall overcome some day,” they sang, “We shall overcome Sunday.”  The actor and activist explained that some day was too distant, but Sunday was never more than one week away. 

When gender balance advocates and diversity practitioners say that change takes a long time, we are acknowledging the challenge of transforming complex systems, as well as habitual behaviors and traditional beliefs within them. We are admitting that the historical pace of change has been slower than anticipated, and we may be rationalizing the lower than expected return on investment of our gender balance and diversity initiatives. In addition, we are taking into account statistics projecting that it will take decades, generations, or even centuries to reach gender parity and inclusion on boards, among elected officials, in company leadership, in pay, or even in media coverage of Olympic athletes. 

The argument that change takes time can feel reasonable in light of the challenges to be overcome. But are we too comfortable with the idea that progress will be slow? What would customers, employees, and investors say to company leaders who espoused that it would take generations to improve quality, safety, or revenue?  Why do these same stakeholders accept that gender balance will not be achieved in their own lifetime?

Facilitating transformation is always challenging.  But when leaders commit and employ sophisticated change management strategies, they can transform their organizations rapidly.

What if we were open to the premise that we can achieve gender balance and gender inclusion as rapidly as other significant organizational transformations? 

As I consider how we envision the pace of change in D&I, I wonder whether there are gendered dynamics at play within the very tone of our discussion. In Western society, women continue to be socialized in ways emphasizing the importance of relationships and connectedness. Corresponding with this are directives encouraging women to:

  • Focus on people and build harmonious relationships
  • Avoid risks
  • Refrain from challenging authority or ‘rocking the boat’ (disturbing things the mainstream wants to preserve)
  • Be nice, be patient, and wait your turn

Contrast this orientation with more masculine directives, organized around strength and action, including:

  • Focus on speedy action, tasks, and results
  • Seek risks
  • Stand up to authority
  • Be assertive, and don’t take no for an answer

Is our very conversation about the pace of change in achieving gender balance for individuals, institutions, and society at large gendered? Do these patterns subtly, but powerfully, influence women to patiently nod their heads when they hear that change takes a long time, even when that change is in their interest? As we focus on advancing the status of women, are we too willing to accept slow and measured progression?

I don’t have the answers, but I am intrigued by the question. A variety of forces underlie our expectation that change in gender balance takes time. We need to examine these factors. We need to question the fundamental assumptions on how we envision our goals, and pursue them. We need to commit to new ways of thinking and working in D&I.

Joanna Barsh, Director, NY McKinsey & Co, argued on the topic of gender balance: “It’s our job to get to some kind of critical mass as quickly as we can so that subsequent generations of talent will be even better than we are (in McKinsey’s Women Matter Video).” Building on that, my challenge to you is to commit to innovative approaches to rapidly achieve gender balance so that current, as well as subsequent, generations of talent can thrive. Like Ruby Dee, we need start envisioning change sooner than “someday.”

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  • About the Author: Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele is a senior fellow providing diversity & inclusion (D&I) expertise for The Conference Board. She serves as program director for both the Diversity & Inclusion Executives and…

    Full Bio | More from Rebekah Steele


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