If you want to do something to get more women into leadership, you need to know the facts.

I was recently asked within the space of a few weeks to do four presentations for three different women’s organisations on the same subject: Why are there still so few female leaders? And what we can do to get more women into leadership? Each of the organisers specifically asked me to present the “facts”.  Why?

Here’s their answer: Because most of the time, when women talk about any kind of gender equality issue, they “just” share personal stories and opinions.

What’s wrong with that?

Nothing, really, if the purpose of the discussion is simply to share stories. But for some reason, all that talk doesn’t translate into action. Here’s why I think people get stuck.

Personal experience is only true for one person

People often generalise from their own personal experience with gender-related (and other) issues to all men and women. Then they draw conclusions about what to do.

Here are some examples:

  • Some women who have made it into top management positions say they’ve never experienced any kind of discrimination. Then they say the main reason we don’t see more women in top positions is because they aren’t ambitious enough.
  • A male manager who has tried and failed to persuade a female employee to go after a promotion may reach the same conclusion.
  • A single woman without children who has been subjected to sexual harassment may feel like she lost her ambition because of the way she was treated. She may see sexism and gender bias as the main problem keeping women out of leadership.
  • A married woman who has children and takes maternity leave while her partner continues working as before may think that the main problem is lack of equal leave for dads.

How would you get a group of people with such different experiences and perspectives to work together to promote gender equality if all they can point to is personal experience? You can’t argue with personal experience.

That’s where facts can help.

Facts establish a shared reality.

A fact is a conclusion based on some kind of evidence. Everything else is just personal opinion.

It’s important not to confuse “facts” with “truth” or “reality”. A “fact” isn’t 100% true just because there’s some kind of evidence to support it. It only means that it’s more likely to be true than a claim without supporting evidence.

So , as the amount and kinds of evidence to support it increase, the more true the fact becomes. You might say the “truth” value of a claim increases proportionally with the amount and quality of evidence available to support it.

Learning from science

The gold standard for evaluating “facts” is the scientific method. In a blog post, Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, explains that a fact is accepted as fact, if and only if you can show multiple and independent lines of publicly available evidence to support them. Frank explains:

Evidence: You can’t just yell and stomp your feet….You have to come with something to show: photographs; temperature readings; sound recordings; ticket sales. The evidence you need depends on the fact of the matter you’re claiming (or refuting). But if you don’t have data, you’re just blowing smoke.

Multiple lines of evidence: The more important the fact, the more kinds of evidence you need to elevate it to the status of public knowledge.

Independent lines of evidence: In the age of the Internet, this point is often the one folks forget about. If two people make the same claim about a fact, do they have different pieces of evidence discovered independently? A public fact can only be truly public if lots of people working apart and from different sources all find evidence for that same fact.

What if you’re not a scientist?

First of all, being a scientist is no guarantee that you only make factual statements about gender equality. You could be a scientist who studies the effect of hormones on the brain and say whatever you want, but if you can’t point to multiple independent lines of evidence supporting your claim, you’re blowing hot air. If other scientists publicly disagree about an assertion like that, then chances are it’s not a fact.

To sort facts from personal opinion – or plain old fiction – you have to find out what evidence there is to support an  assertion like “women just need to be more ambitious”. You need to do some reading. Find some reliable sources. The most important thing? Be curious, read widely, and be ready to change your mind when you discover evidence that contradicts your opinion.

First published on LinkedIn 3 November 2017.