6 Gameful tactics for greater female participation in management and leadership roles
Ever since reading Super Better by Jane McGonigal (McGonigal, 2015) I can’t help but approach every goal, every challenge in a gameful (Deterding, 2015) way. So how would we gamify the challenge of greater participation of women in top roles?
Let’s see just how far we can stretch this gaming analogy …
The game itself consists of quests that our heroes embark on, overcoming obstacles of varying difficulty along the way to get to a hopefully epic win at the end.
Organisations, our workplaces, are really the game makers, defining what the game looks like, its rules, how many levels there are and just how challenging the game is. They are also the gatekeepers to the quests. They decide who gets to play the game and ultimately who wins.
Policymakers are the designers and keepers of the platforms on which games are distributed. They set out how the game looks and behaves and of course access to the game as you really have to buy into the platform to even get a chance to play the game. They also have a lot of games that can be played simultaneously, and sometimes some games are promoted over others depending on the platform priorities/monetisation opportunities.
Individuals are the gamers playing the game. They are the heroes embarking on the quest - the women whose lived experience daily is shaped by society, work and nature. (I am picturing a nice Venn diagram here with overlapping sections being the norms, and the reuleaux triangle in the middle for women’s daily lived experience.) It’s of course also our sidekicks, support and background characters … and maybe a villain or two.
Let’s explore what gameful tactics, our game makers (organisations), gaming platforms (policymakers) and gamers (individuals), can employ for a super better game.
Gameful tactics for Organisations
Tactic 1. Make the win a truly epic win.
The attainment of upper echelons in business, the coveted CEO role, is essentially our epic win in this scenario. But just how epic is this win and is this win a win at all?
Interestingly, research tells us that women are not necessarily tempted by the CxO roles, citing possible detrimental impact on quality of life and more specifically work-life balance. A recent conversation with a fellow “Woman in Tech” shared that she simply can’t envisage taking on the emotional toll of having to care after all the employees in the organisation – the emotional burden is simply not worth the rank.
Scrolling through LinkedIn, I came across a recent post by Simon Sinek, who calls for the CEO job title to change to CVO – Chief Vision Officer. His argument is that out of all the CxO role, Chief Executive Officer is the only ambiguous role, the only role that doesn’t make it clear what domain you should excel at. I agree, and I think that it is this ambiguity that opens the role up to mis-interpretation, and makes stereotypes of what it means to be a CEO hard to shake off. Now, would you want to play to win the title of “Vision Maker” or the title “Emotional Burden Carrier”?
Tactic 2: Create quests fit for heroes.
Quests, are there to test you, rewarding you along the way with points and promotions to the next levels. Some quests are better equipped to certain heroes than others.
Whilst companies seem to be increasingly more interested in emotional and social competencies over any technical skills when it comes to their leaders, most reward systems remain misaligned to that line of thinking. The business world seems to still care about “killing metrics”, bringing issues to “war rooms” – encouraging fighting the challenges and rewarding when the hero rather than flee battles the obstacle at hand.
Now, are acts of tending to situations, preventing issues, creating communities and building up others to ensure a collective good as much as possible, perceived just as heroic and rewarded with promotions? These are often the acts that enable success but are often unseen and not measured. The irony is that the tending instinct, women’s prevalent response to stress (not the classic fight or flight) (Taylor, 2002) enabling the rallying of people together in the face of a crisis, are seen as excellent traits for a leader.
Gameful tactics for Policymakers
Tactic 3. Ensure game makers create fair games.
There are some very promising results when it comes to policies that legislate rather than apply on a voluntary basis (Catalyst, 2019). Policymakers should continue to legislate gender equality, making the quest fair with clear rules of engagement.
Tactic 4. Encourage game makers to create different games.
Policymakers can challenge existing models of growth, encouraging different businesses to rise and evolve structure that allow a different type of play. Re-designing hierarchies and embedded structures in businesses takes time and money. Financing such experimental changes could be a good approach but I’d argue that perhaps we can ensure that we employ a simple “If we are changing something already, should we see if we can tackle this gender representation issue too” checklist. For example, as outlined in the recent Williams Rail review, the government in the UK is financing restructure of the rail sector. This will come at a huge cost but will continue supporting an even larger hierarchical organisational pyramid structure, and the report not once mentions gender, equality, and promotes the appointment of an existing male CEO in to the role of this new organisation. Now I should mention that this review does explicitly state a plan for increasing diversity but isn’t specific about gender or inclusion.
Perhaps policymakers can explore what else can be done at a socio-political level to encourage models like the one championed by SheO. Launched in 2015, rather than trying to fit women into the existing models and systems, SheO is creating an entirely new field. SheEO in their words “pushes the reset button on how to support women on their own terms. We focus on bringing out the best of women by being radically generous to one another.”
Gameful tactics for Individuals
Tactic 5. Get power-ups – anything that makes us better at playing the game.
Women’s empowerment, can only happen through us as gamers powering up throughout the quest to get to the epic win. According to Empowerment: Finding strength in self-compassion (Stevenson O, 2017) a “significant positive relationship was found between self-compassion and empowerment”. Men seem to do this well with the finding that masculinity was the strongest and most consistent predictor of self-compassion (Lisa M, 2018).
This tactic is about getting rid of the self-sabotaging beliefs that hold women back, and work on powering up through developing self-worth and self-value.
Tactic 6. Recruit allies who will help you along the way.
I found myself recently on a call with colleagues who brought me in to do a “miracle rescue mission” on a critical deal. In four days, I’d been asked to go in front of the customer Executive Board and persuade them that our product is the right choice for their workforce. Whilst I am brainstorming out loud all the angles that we could explore and prepare in anticipation of the upcoming meeting with said Board, mid-braindump-flow a male sales executive stops me to say, “Irina, just to let you know that with the CIO you will need to get to the point and he really doesn’t like women presenting to him”. Now, here is what went through my mind in a couple of seconds that followed:
Shock which my body started translating through shoulders hunching, ache in the pit of my stomach
Denial through inner monologue that sounded something like “It’s not a big deal, surely you are used to this!”
Anger at myself for yet again being too verbose, too communicative.
Bargaining – “Ok, I need to be less verbose, get to the point, this feedback is actually helping me!”
Depression at the fact that perhaps I am not all that good at influencing
Stress creeping in, not only over the high stakes but also this feedback that I want to make sure I act on to not cost us a deal – “How can I be less woman for this CIO?”
And finally – acceptance – resulting in me uttering something like “Ahmm, ok”, said with a smile of course!
A few minutes past this non-event, a senior male director stops the call and asks everybody to reflect on what's just happened, calling into question whether this deal is worth rescuing, whether putting me in front of this CIO is worth the potential challenge to our own company values.
We wrapped up the call soon after some awkward acknowledgements, and as soon as I was off the call, I broke down howling, or as my friend calls it “ugly crying” – the type of cathartic crying you do for true trauma exorcism.
The lesson – allyship is critical! We all need a bit of help and rely on others to help us see the wrongs that we may have become blind to.
In conclusion … (thanks for sticking with me so far on this gaming analogy)
Ultimately, the world we live in isn’t a perfect play environment. EU 2021 report on gender equality highlights how one of the painful consequences of COVID-19 is a roll-back on some of the advancements in gender quality, and reflects that “progress on women’s rights is hard won but easily lost.” Perhaps the most important gameful tactic we can employ is one which looks to make the games we play infinite (Sinek, 2018) benefiting as many players along the way as possible and responsive enough to our ever-changing environment.
Catalyst. (2019). Lead Outward and Lead Inward to Build an Inclusive Workplace. Catalyst.
Deterding, E. b. (2015). The Gameful World. MIT Press.
Lisa M, Y. &. (2018). Gender Differences in Self-compassion. Springer Nature.
McGonigal, J. (2015). Super Better. Penguin Press.
Sinek, S. (2018). The Infinite Game. Portfolio/Penguin.
Stevenson O, A. A. (2017). Women's empowerement: finding strength in self-compassion. Women Health, 295-310.
Taylor, S. E. (2002). The Tending Instinct. Times Books.