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March was Women's History Month. As part of it, Zions Bank highlighted the contributions women make in business and how creating a culture of gender intelligence can help enhance productivity and equity in any workplace environment.

SALT LAKE CITY — Though companies have for years been trying to cultivate work environments where all employees — men and woman — can succeed, one expert says there remains a fundamental misunderstanding of how the genders think and behave in the workplace.

Barbara Annis, CEO of New-York-based Gender Intelligence Group and an expert on gender, diversity and inclusive leadership, sees "gender intelligence" as the "reframing of gender equality."

"Gender intelligence is really about the strength and differences between men and women in how they lead, innovate and make decisions," she said.

" Gender intelligence is really about the strength and differences between men and women in how they lead, innovate and make decisions. "
Barbara Annis, CEO of New-York-based Gender Intelligence Group

As part of Women's History Month, Zions Bank highlighted the contributions women make in business and how creating a culture of gender intelligence can help enhance productivity and equity in any workplace environment.

Annis said gender intelligence identifies the strengths that women bring to the workplace, and uses them in the most productive, advantageous manner in collaboration with their male colleagues' strong points.

"The bottom line is about men and women working and winning together," she said.

In her research published this year, Annis noted that women comprise 11 percent of creative directors in advertising agencies despite making or influencing over 85 percent of all consumer purchases in the U.S. She added that more than two-thirds of all social media are used more frequently by women, yet men constitute 87 percent of all technical employees in Silicon Valley.

Women have received more than half of all higher education degrees in North America since the 1980s and worldwide since the 1990s, she wrote, yet they hold less than 25 percent of senior positions in business with only 5 percent becoming CEOs. To develop a genuinely gender equitable workspace and culture will demand a shift in the prevailing mindset in male-dominated business settings, she said.

"It's a paradigm where we thought you had to have certain competencies (in business)," she said. "These competencies have been very male competencies. There's nothing wrong with them, they're all good. But very few women fit into that mold."

Creating an environment of gender equity within a workplace is an ongoing, thought-driven process that requires hard work, commitment from leadership and enough humility to understand the need for change and the long-term benefits that will result.

"We (usually) have the best of intentions wanting us all to succeed, work well together and achieve results," Annis explained. "But these are just well-intended blind spots that we're just unaware of (for years)."

Now that science has researched and made these issues apparent, it is up to leadership to make intentional changes that will improve the culture for all genders, she said.

"When we think of diversity and inclusion, we become gender-blind," she said. Paying attention to gender differences and how to address them in a manner that accentuates their strengths will be very helpful in developing a positive workplace culture, she added.

Annis also said the most important requirement for culture change in the workplace is for the executive leadership to be fully supportive of the necessary reforms.

"The No. 1 condition that we've seen is executive (buy-in)," she said. "You've got to have an authentic commitment at the CEO level."

Women also have to be empowered in much the same manner as their male counterparts throughout their career track, in a way that demonstrates workplace equity, she said.

"Embark on collaboration. Embark on inclusion. Embark on learning how we can be most effective in how we work with each other," Annis said.

Meanwhile, putting gender intelligence principles into practice has become a major priority at one locally founded financial institution. Salt Lake City-based Zions Bank is striving to remove barriers from employees that would be an impediment to career growth, explained Shelly Johnson, executive vice president responsible for managing executive operational risk in diversity, equity and inclusion.

"It starts with an intentional (CEO) who makes it part of the (institution's) strategy (and understands) what a diverse workforce can create," she said. "And you can't have diversity without inclusion as well."

She said for organizational change to occur, leadership has to make it clear to every employee how important to the welfare of the company gender equity is to its workplace culture and environment, while intentionally identifying the strategies and goals they are trying to attain.

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She noted that with over 1,700 employees companywide, creating that culture will take a determined effort to achieve the needed engagement from executives and staff.

"It starts with the top down and then we (executives) facilitate that (engagement) by keeping it going and holding it to individual performance," Johnson said. "It's something that has to be ongoing. You can never rest because it will never just sustain itself. You have to keep it intentional, be consistent and make it visible."