Michelle King is a leading global expert in gender and organizations and has been featured in the Economist, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Business Insider, The Times, Daily Mail, and LinkedIn Editors. She is the director of inclusion at Netflix and former head of UN Women’s Global Innovation Coalition for Change, which includes managing more than 30 private-sector partnerships as well as three key initiatives focused on leveraging innovation and technology to accelerate the achievement of gender equality and women’s empowerment. These include the Gender Innovation Principles, the She Innovates Global Program, and the 4Good Program in South Africa. In 2019, Women Tech Founders, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to advancing women in the tech industry, awarded King with the 2019 Inspiring Innovator Award for her outstanding achievements in the sector.
Based on her more than 16 years of research and exclusive interviews with major companies and thought leaders, THE FIX: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work explores the truth behind what's hindering women in the workplace and provides a clear roadmap to find success on their own terms. King's research reveals that the one thing holding women back above all else is gender denial. By denying gender inequality, we're preventing women and people of color from getting to that corner office.
In your new book you talk about how women can overcome the invisible barriers by not focusing on them but focusing on the workplaces. How are workplaces broken?
In THE FIX, I outline the 17 barriers women face at work because of cultures of inequality. Fundamentally, these challenges exist because workplaces do not value men and women in the same way. Workplaces were never designed for difference—they were designed to support an ideal type of worker to succeed who tends to be a white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied man typically willing to engage in dominant, assertive, aggressive, competitive, and even exclusionary behaviors to get ahead. The problem is most people don’t fit this ideal. The more ways you differ from the ideal, the more barriers you are going to experience trying to advance. The aim really is to create work environments that recognize employees’ different identities and value them for this.
How can a culture heal if the CEO is broken in their cultural thinking?
How can workplaces create a culture of equality if leaders don’t value it? Well, this is hard but ultimately starts with each of us becoming aware of how our behavior contributes to our colleagues’ experiences of inequality. Inclusion is a practice; it is something employees do. Everyday moments of discrimination, marginalization, exclusion, and male favoritism leverage inequality. If left unchecked, these moments eventually become accepted as the way employees behave, creating an entire workplace culture that is hostile toward women. To really achieve equality, we need leaders to lead and manage the everyday behaviors, exchanges, and moments where culture happens. We can’t get there without leaders.
Why do diversity and inclusion programs fail? What are they missing?
Most diversity and inclusion programs don’t focus on making inclusion a practice. How many employees in your organization can tell you what they are doing every day, as part of their job, to advance equality? Or even how inequality works at work. If men and women don’t understand what the problem is we are trying to solve or how their behavior contributes to this, then it is impossible to solve the issue.
What do talent development and HR professionals not understand about the difference between diversity and inclusion?
I think it is more a case of what do we all do not understand when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and equality. Diversity is a representational issue, and while this is important, having a diverse workforce does not guarantee inclusion. But you can also have a workplace that is inclusive but not diverse. Neither of these two elements alone or combined are sufficient. The aim of this work is to value differences and create environments that reward, support, and encourage employees to share their different identities, capabilities, and perspectives. This starts with creating cultures of equality. Research by the consulting firm Accenture finds that in cultures of equality, women are six times more likely to advance to senior leadership positions and men are twice as likely to advance, as we are no longer valuing a small number of people who fit the outdated masculine ideal. There is no one standard for success.
How do you measure your success in this aspect?
It is pretty simple. I will be out of a job (and happily so) whenever men and women know how to practice equality as part of their jobs.
Are there other countries out there getting it right, and what can we learn from them?
This seems like a big ask, but as a New Zealander, I am proud of our progressive legislation and gender equality efforts as well as the leadership of Jacinda Ardern, who is demonstrating a new standard for what good leadership looks like. She is focused on practicing kindness and being known for this, which is not something we typically associate with world leaders.
Can you name a time when you had to push against all odds and lost the battle (but won the war)?
Writing my book, I was unaware of how gender inequality creates challenges for men at work. In researching the challenges it creates for women, I realized I was missing a huge part of the story, which is why it took me a little longer to finish my book since I went back and researched the challenges men encounter at work. Now I have an entire chapter on this in my book, and it is fascinating to see how inequality really doesn’t work for anyone. And several men have thanked me for writing the book for them. It is a great message as we all have something to gain from taking action. Your fight is my fight.