Small talk at recent client meetings has revolved around the now infamous CellC CEO’s, Jose Dos Santos, statements around women in the workplace. He made himself quite unpopular in a radio interview by drawing on a caveman mindset, candidly referring to the role of pretty woman in the workplace (men suddenly shave when they work with beautiful woman) and how women have a “bitch switch” that turns on when they are competing for promotions.

It’s a storm in a teacup, some have said to me, nothing to get offended about. Some have commented that Dos Santos has just articulated what we all know to be true about women in the workplace. Others have been flabbergasted that a CEO can publicly say stuff like this.

The debacle is interesting from a storylines perspective because it has thrown the issue of gender and diversity in the workplace out into the open. My own take is that the debate is not so much about Dos Santos’s personal take on women in the workplace, but about the inherent storylines around women he’s referring to within CellC (and other large companies), how we speak these storylines into life within organisational worlds and whether these core narratives impoverish our organisations.

The CEO is, whether we like it or not, one of themost powerful voices in large organisations. His (or her!) pronouncements on organisational dynamics speak the organisational world into being! The statements about strategy, culture, values and other topics both describeorganisational realities and create them at the same time.

Culture is an emergent set of core narratives that people live out, and so the subtle perspectives we have about women in the workplace are actually very powerful core narratives about what women are and how they should show up (how they are valued). These set the tone for how women should construct their work-narratives and the implicit expectations colleagues have of them.

The ultimate concern is that when a certain take on femaleness is elevated there are other forms of ‘being a woman’ that are implicitly discouraged, and in some instances entirely rejected in organisational settings. The same concern applies to other forms of humanity that we articulate, be it what it means to be a ‘real man’, what is appreciated or devalued about being ‘young’ or ‘old’ at work, the way ‘finance people’ hold the ‘marketing people’ back … and the list goes on.

There are no doubt a bunch of senior male leaders who are silently thankful it was Dos Santos who made the error instead of them. As a man, I would invite these leaders (you!) to consider some questions:

  • What core narratives are you implicitly supporting about women in your organisation?
  • How are you being open to the range of expressions that femaleness brings to your organisation?
  • Is your organisation one in which a rich, gift-laden femaleness supports your culture and strategy?

One of the best ways to understand how gender diversity is supporting your strategy, or holding it back, is to listen to the stories women have to tell about what it is like to be a woman in your organisation.

A narrative enquiry on gender in the workplace is a good starting point. The Narrative Lab can help in gathering hundreds, if not thousands, of these stories and visualise them in a story dashboard that will illustrate the patterns at play, thereby allowing you to deploy targeted interventions.