When it comes to gender equality in the workplace, the research on its economic benefits is clear: Equality can boost profits and enhance reputation. And then there’s also the fact that it’s more fair. But the progress of women in the workplace is so far inadequate: Women are woefully underrepresented in executive positions, the pay gap persists, and the motherhood penalty is very real.

Barbara Annis is the founder of the Gender Intelligence Group, a consultancy that works with executives at major firms (including Deloitte, American Express, BMO Financial Group, and eBay) to create strategies to transform their work cultures into ones that are friendly to both men and women.

I recently spoke with Annis about her work and the challenges to achieving gender parity. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Bourree Lam: Tell me a little bit about yourself and why you started this company.

Barbara Annis: I started this company simply because of my own experience. Many years ago in the early, early ‘80s, I was the first woman in sales at Sony—I went into various levels of management and I began to realize that I actually had emulated very male behavior. They called me the “Sherman tank” or the “third sex.” I had different labels like that.

I was very successful. I had won MVP of the team awards, all that wonderful stuff, but there was an interesting distinction I realized, which was that I was very different inside the corporation compared with outside it. With clients, I was my authentic self, which really brought a lot of trust to the relationship and we were able to close some amazing deals and work well together. But, inside the company, I became one of the guys. With that in mind, I left.

I was thinking I could train women to survive in that paradigm. Within one year, I had my huge “Aha” moment. I was working with a pharmaceutical company and this woman Victoria, a scientist, kept saying, “Why are we here? Why women? Why us? Why are you training us?”

And I didn’t have an intelligent answer. I realized that it wasn’t about fixing women into traditional male, or what I called alpha-male, paradigms—but to change the paradigm. After that, I stopped doing what I was calling “women’s business workshops” and I started doing men and women working and leading together, or what I call “gender intelligence workshops.”

Lam: What are your clients looking for from you?

Annis: There’s a couple things they are looking for. If you look at technology companies, they’re looking to overcome what they call the “brain drain” or what they call the “talent drain.” They’re losing women: Women come in after having graduated and they last three to five years, so that’s one.

Second, is “Why aren’t we making progress?” We’ve made great progress in middle management: Why aren’t we making progress in senior management? Those are the two things that start the conversation and from there it expands into, “Oh my goodness, are we gender-intelligent in everything that we do? How we deal with our clients? How we go to market? Our advertising? Our branding? Our leadership, etc.”

Lam: Are the answers different from company to company?

Annis: There’s a common theme. Deloitte Canada, for example, was recruiting 50 to 60 percent women accountants over the span of 15 years, so more women accountants than men, but they were losing them.* There was 27 percent turnover for women and 11 percent for men. [Annis later clarified that Deloitte Canada was able to reduce female turnover from 27 to 11 percent over the course of three years, saving tens of millions in turnover costs.]**

The number one assumption—this is what I see in so many companies, if not all companies—they make as to why women don’t advance and why women leave is that it’s because of work-life balance. What’s interesting is that a different story emerges from these women.

Lam: What’s the story?

Annis: The story is: “Do I have work-life balance challenges? Absolutely. And did I say that in my exit interview? Absolutely, because it’s a reality. However, what caused me to leave was that I didn’t feel valued. And I didn’t feel like there was a future progression of my career within this company and within this firm.”

It’s interesting to see the reality of work-life balance—I mean, I have seven children, so I have no work-life balance, right?—the reality is there. But, the reason for women leaving is the absence of feeling valued. It’s quite fascinating to me.

Lam: Are there weaknesses to how we talk about equality?

Annis: There’s this thing about equal meaning the same—that we should treat everybody equally, meaning treat everybody the same. One Swedish CEO I was working with, he said, “In Sweden, this is totally everywhere, even my mother taught me that. So, we don’t want to look at differences.” He mentioned this book called The Androgynous Manager. It was all about fitting in and being the same.

But we don’t want to look at differences. [Instead, we] go in and create this sameness culture. Every time I hear something when they say, “We look for cultural fit,” my antenna goes up big time. Because if cultural fit is based on sameness and what competencies you are assessing people on is based on sameness, I will bet that it’s a model made for men.

The Swedish CEO looked at his company and he noticed, “This is so male. We’ve very transactional, we’re aggressive, we're in-your-face kind of culture, kind of thing, right?” You’re really going to lose some pretty amazing talent or the talent will try and fit in, like I did at Sony. That’s a big challenge from a talent perspective.

Lam: Have you ever worked with a female-dominated company? What did you see there?

Annis: Many years ago we worked with the Body Shop, and they had one man on their executive team and the rest were women. He felt not heard, not understood, excluded, didn’t quite fit in. So the same thing happens.

Lam: What’s ahead?

Annis: The thing about advancing women is that people think it’s such a long journey, and it’s not. We just made this assumption that it's going to take a long long time. Women have been educated in greater numbers than men around the world, so it’s really about shifting gears and thinking about this as a two-year journey. You can get this done in two years.

Lam: In a sense, that sounds like classic procrastination.

Annis: Classic procrastination. This is so hard, it’s going to take so long. It’s not.

​* This article originally stated that 50 to 60 percent of the accountants Deloitte Canada recruited over the last 50 years, rather than 15 years, were female. We regret the error.

** This article has been updated to clarify that while turnover rates for accountants at Deloitte Canada have historically been significantly different for men and women, this difference decreased radically from 1999-2002.