Beth Duyvejonck Delivers Kate Dunwoody Society Luncheon Keynote on Gender Equity

Beth Duyvejonck, Regional Vice President of Construction, had the opportunity to give the keynote at the Kate Dunwoody Society (KDS) Luncheon earlier this month. KDS was created to recognize and honor the vision and generosity of Kate Dunwoody. It's a network of people – students, alumni, staff, faculty, friends and community members – united to create equal opportunities for the Women of Dunwoody.

Beth is no stranger to advocating for and creating equal opportunities for women. 365 days a year Beth works tirelessly to elevate the voices of women in construction.

Beth mentors women in both construction and development roles at Opus and co-founded the Opus Women's Network, which brings together women for professional encouragement and camaraderie. She is also the focus area leader for supplier diversity at Opus, in addition to being a Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) Champion.

In addition to influencing women directly through her leadership and mentorship, and indirectly through education and industry committees, Beth often presents on the topic of gender equity in construction. She discussed DEI-related issues in engineering and construction at the Construction Institute Summit in St. Louis this past spring and has also delivered presentations based on her Master of Organizational Leadership thesis to many groups.

Below you can read Beth's keynote or watch it here.

Beth's Keynote to the KDS Luncheon

Thank you to Dunwoody College of Technology and the Kate Dunwoody Society for inviting me to be a storyteller, and a huge thank you to my family and colleagues for sponsoring tables and being here. The work that we are doing together is a collective effort and our showing today represents an amazing network.

The Business Case for diversity gets a lot of press – highlighting all the ways that business will be more successful when we engage a more diverse pool of talent. We are going to set the business benefits of diversity as a given. Today, we are going to talk about how each of us can move both together and forward through awareness and new ways to show up for one another.

I am going to ask you to think differently about gender, barriers to leadership and advocacy. I will talk about the roles we all play, talk about identity and question power structures.

As a master's graduate, I designed independent research and wrote a 100-page thesis on gender, leadership and tokenism. This research and thesis is the bridge that provides me a unique platform, having both studied the academic basis for these concepts and experiencing them in my day-job. ("'One of the Guys': Women Leaders and Tokenism in Male-Dominated Environment" by Beth Duyvejonck)

With my tenure and timeline, I am quite used to being the only woman at the table. And that is what brought me here today.

When I started my thesis, I was directed to identify a problem, and I chose the concept of the leaky pipeline. You've probably heard of this. I need you to imagine that this pipeline of talent, specifically in STEM fields, will lose its diversity of gender and race as it advances.

Very specifically, for my thesis, I used a 2020 Catalyst study showing the number of women in S&P 500 Companies. When measuring total employees, women made up 44.7%. At senior manager level, women made up 26.5%. For top earners, women made up 11%, and at the CEO level, women made up 5.8%. In fact, at the time of this study, there were more men named John as S&P 500 CEOs than there were women.

Many times, as I've presented the concept of the leaky pipeline, I've been asked if I also researched whether women desire to have executive level positions. This has been asked out of true curiosity and has been asked as a form of opposition. My answer was the same, however. No, I did not focus my research on whether women wanted leadership. There is plenty of research on that topic, for those interested. My research was focused on making leadership accessible for all talent that desires it. If we set the business case for diversity as a given, accessibility must be a priority.

I reviewed existing literature on gender barriers and corporate diversity initiatives. I used my new knowledge to design interview questions and interviewed six women in leadership roles inside male-dominated industries. 

I want to spend an important moment discussing the limitations of my study. Research and data on women leaders is a relatively new area of study, and most of the studies (including mine) have been conducted on white women. There is even less research done to understand the experiences of women of color in leadership. It is my hope that what I share today inspires you to better understand how different lived experiences impact the ways we work and connect with one another. This will result in more diverse narratives becoming a part of leadership research.

After conducting interviews, a thesis requires the researcher to select an existing academic theory as the framework for understanding data and testing their hypothesis. And this is where things got really interesting.

Through my research on diversity initiatives, I noted that many efforts focused on developing women to be more successful in male-dominated environments. These approaches had come to be referred to as “Fix the Women". As diversity efforts evolved, there began to be an awareness that the environment itself could be “developed". These approaches are termed as “Fix the system".

My hypothesis was that women leader's experiences would improve inside organizations with systemic diversity initiatives in place.

But you are about to see that is not what I found.

My four findings demonstrate that women leaders in male-dominated environments continue to experience gender barriers at a high rate. Seemingly in conflict to the extent of reported gender barriers, the women remained overwhelmingly supportive of their organization and leadership while wanting to avoid personal advocacy or attention that might drive positive change. All six of the participants remained hopeful, and important to my research, reported that their organizations have implemented systems-based diversity improvements.

There is more at work beneath the surface of systems. My search led me to the Psychology of Tokenism, which is an academic article, written by Judith Long Laws in 1975 describing the social contracts that exist in a skewed environment (1). Let's unpack that together. Skewed means that women were significantly under-represented. By social contracts, we mean an implicit agreement among the members of a group to cooperate. Think of social contracts as operating assumptions, unspoken but understood rules of engagement.

I did not go into my research intending to use tokenism. In fact, I resisted it, because it required me to admit that I was a player inside an implicit social contract and that was uncomfortable.

Once I committed to using the Psychology of Tokenism I began to see how my findings supported the ways we are all socialized into this shared belief system that includes unconscious bias and underlying social contracts about gender.

In an academic setting, I was required to analyze data and write a thesis. But as a leader, I have the opportunity to do more.

Once I started to share my work outside of academia, I began to weave in my own experiences which is intimating. The conversations go something like this: Beth, you know what would make this very vulnerable work even better? If you included some really personal stories about your own life, share it with all your bosses and colleagues and then take it on the road. And I said Yes.

So if I can do that, together we can further explore some of these tricky and sometimes emotionally heavy concepts through the lens of inclusive leadership by asking how do we bring about positive change?

We often envision the road map of inclusive leadership to be a straight line from here to there. And, I wish the roadmap were this simple!

The road map is not simple however, so let's layer in some complexity.

If we consider here to be a homogeneous environment with a dominant group in power – such as the environments that I studied in my thesis and a still existing in a majority of technology and skilled trades industry. Women make up less than 25% of the population and most if not all of the high power positions are held by men.

And we consider there to be an environment with parity in numbers and power distribution between men and women.

The path is more like a roller coaster – twisting around and doubling back on itself.

I want us to study two stops along the way – remember the goal to move beyond and understand:

  • What can we fix with numbers?
  • When to dig deeper to recognize resistance (social pressures) when we meet it.
These are terms that date back from the 1970's and 1980's. I will try to build some understanding without getting to attached to some of the dated language.

Let's start with Tokenism, which has been heavily debated, and here is what I want you to understand about the concept. Tokenism refers to both the quantity of under-represented individuals inside an environment AND the power structure. In my work, women were under-represented statistically, and also under-represented in the distribution of power. The best example I can share here to help you understand this intersection of numbers and power is that of male nurses. Men are under-represented in the nursing field. When researchers looked for the elements of tokenism in the nursing environment, they were not successful. While women inside a male dominated environment were assumed to be administrative assistants or other positions of low-power, male nurses inside a female-dominated environment were assumed to be doctors or other positions of high-power. There are more than mere numbers at play.

Critical mass is another stop on our curve that is important to understand; it's also a term that is used more generally in business. Critical mass represents the point where an initiative becomes self-sustaining. Some researchers have found that pace towards social change can accelerate with as few as three representatives from outside the dominant group. I find this to be refreshing, mostly because in many settings, we are so close to this.

But why does progress stall? Why do we seem to spend so much time at the Tokenism stop on our line?

This is where social pressures and gender-based leadership barriers come into play.

Social based pressures can take many forms. If we consider direct methods, they are often summarized as Denial, Derailing and Disengagement.

  • Denial – there isn't a problem
  • Derailing – what about other problems?
  • Disengagement or fatigue – this isn't my problem or I'm too tired to put energy into this
I found no less than 27 categories of barriers that hinder women in pursuit of leadership. Today I will focus on four that are considered organization-based and overlap with the experiences shared by my interview participants (2).

  1. For many of us, leadership and the traits needed to be a successful leader are deeply associated with men. In our minds, leaders own the room and are confident, charismatic and persuasive. Women are collegial, friendly and helpful. When these two opposing mental assumptions collide, women are disadvantaged and it has a name – the double bind. As a result, women leaders expressing themselves in ways associated with men are evaluated poorly, while a man exhibiting the same traits is evaluated positively. Men that promote themselves and their ideas are seen as confident, while women are seen as bossy or overly assertive. When women aren't nicer or friendlier than their male peers, they are viewed as harsh.

  2. Women leaders in all industries experience decreased opportunities for mentoring, sponsorship and professional support. This is sometimes as apparent as not being invited to company golf or hunting trips but is also more complex. Women's natural networks, both professional and personal, will include fewer corporate peers. I see this more so as I advance in leadership, and it requires me to be more intentional about building and maintaining relationships that can support my career. When I'm asked how advocates can support their female associates, I encourage them to offer to do a network audit together and bridge some of these gaps.

  3. “Heightened visibility" means feeling like you're in the public eye and feel pressure to perform at higher standards to prove their position is deserved. I can tell you that this feeling, this pressure, is very true and sometimes overwhelming. One of most effective ways that a colleague became an advocate for me in this regard was to simply acknowledge it. He said, “It must be stressful to feel like you carry the water for all women. Thank you for doing that." He knew he couldn't take away the pressure, but he shared it by acknowledging.

  4. Discounting (sometimes called status leveling) means assuming that women in an unusual or unexpected role complies with a stereotype. What does this look like? It could look like women team members being asked to take notes in meetings more often than their male peers because their handwriting is neater or they're just better at it. It looks like the consultant that asked my male team which one of them was my boss. Discounting also looks like interrupting, speaking over and taking credit for someone else's idea – which happens statistically more frequently to women and is absolutely still happening in work settings today. This is not a 1970's problem. Discounting also looks like requiring a woman to “prove herself" prior to promotion, while promoting a male peer based on potential.
Simple awareness of these ongoing challenges is an important first step. However, when I share this work with groups of leaders, I know that you are looking for actions. I just provided a few in these examples and will discuss more next.

With shared understanding now about gender-based barriers to leadership, let's put this back into the context of my study.

Where women leaders experienced all these gender barriers and more. This was observed side-by-side with loyalty to their organization, distancing and hope.

In order for me to understand these seemingly conflicting experiences and reactions, I turned to the theory of tokenism and social contracts.

We are going to focus on how two of these social contracts can show up.

First, exceptionalism.

Definition: shared understanding that a successful women must be unusually competent

In my research, this showed up when women associated themselves more closely to their male peers, often describing themselves as “one of the guys" and distancing themselves from other women or traits often associated with women.

Let's go back to that definition of exceptional competence. Many focus on the word competent. Instead, focus on exceptional as in unusual. When we perceive success for women as unusual or rare, when we believe that women must exhibit traits associated with men in order to be effective, this social contract becomes a roadblock in our goal to normalize women as successful leaders.

Second, Meritocracy/Individualism, which are closely tied.

Definition: belief that hard work and striving for excellence leads to achievement.

In my research, this showed up when women told me “No one deserves anything for free…you need to work your way." 

To help us understand how this shared belief can be a roadblock, I'd like tell you about a time that I messed up. A field leader presented a challenge faced by a new college graduate on our jobsite. This new graduate was young, and he looked young. It was harder for him to gain respect from what is typically a tough crowd. My initial reaction was not my best work. I said something like, “try dealing with that as a young woman. I figured it out and so will he." Like I said, not my best work, and I crawled back to our field leader the next day and asked for a do-over.

We had already identified potential in this young superintendent. As a leader, as an advocate, it was my role to lend him the credibility he needed to gain a strong start. And he did, with the backing of our existing field leaders, this superintendent is now thriving. That is how we can show up for one another, lending our credibility, lending our power, to those that need to be bridged to having established their own.

If social contracts maintain the status quo, how do we get past inertia and resistance to change? I want to spend some time talking about resistance.

Let's start with the non-dominant group – women. If you've been socialized to believe there's only room at the table for one, you're going to be more likely to trip any other woman at the starting line.

Queen bee syndrome dates from the 1970s and is generally considered to be a derogatory label for women leaders in male-dominated fields that distance themselves from other women or treat other women more critically than male peers. There is recent research that women find it more stressful to work for female managers (3).

I'm not here to debate whether this phenomenon exists, rather how can we grow awareness, be on the look-out for triggers and give ourselves the grace to show up for one another differently,

A scarcity mindset results in fear, competition and hoarding. Be aware for this emotional reaction. I know I've experienced it, and I've needed to use raised awareness to break past habits and create new patterns of behavior. I encourage you to find an accountability partner to talk you through your reactions when they happen and build new habits of collaboration and offer opportunity to other women and the next generation of women leaders. As white women, we also have the opportunity use our position of power to better represent and be advocates for women of color.

If you're in the dominant group – men – and you've only seen one woman at the table or one person of color at the table, how might you react when there are now three or nine?

Group threat is another social theory with piles of mixed research that we'll attack the same way:

Become aware and acknowledge the complexity. Be prepared that scarcity emotions might show up. Remember that it's possible to both maintain a positive association with your in-group and support the growth and development of others that don't look like you or share your experience.

Again, find an accountability partner to talk you through your reactions when they happen and build new habits of collaboration and offer opportunity.

What does this new way of showing up for one another look like in a work culture?

An inclusive culture promotes both high belonging and high value in uniqueness.

In a high-belonging environment, leaders communicate that they have the members' best interests in mind, they show fair treatment, and make everyone feel they are a respected.

Environments that promote a high value in uniqueness will encourage diverse contributions. In these cultures, leaders will actively facilitate and empower individuals who otherwise might not feel that their contributions are welcome.

For many cultures, for a long time, the goal has been assimilation or differentiation. And, for those in a non-dominant group, we learned to understand the rules: You didn't make the dominant group feel uncomfortable.

As our cultural goal becomes inclusion, the rules change. And for many of us, this is new. Now, we are being asked to disrupt patterns and habits; and this is in opposition to not making others feel uncomfortable. So let's acknowledge this is new territory and approach each other with new operating assumptions

I'm enjoying the use of the term accomplice in place of advocate. When I think of an accomplice, this is someone willing to do some work and get their hands dirty.

As we all look to become accomplices and develop accomplice relationships, we need to be ready to trust, to listen and do more.

Try asking someone “How could I show up better for you?" or “Help me understand how you experienced this situation" or “What supports do you need?"

That will promote an accomplice conversation.

Earlier, I shared the mental steps I go through to transition from discussing only the women in my study to also weaving in my own personal experiences. It requires courage every time I do it.

And I'm willing to put in that work, because I very much believe that having conversations like today – building bridges like today – is critical to progress and real change. 

I encourage you to remain committed, be willing to engage with courage and curiosity, and curate your own network of accomplices. We can make a difference.

Thank you!


“I always wondered why somebody doesn't do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody." – Lily Tomlin


Additional Footnotes not linked in the text:

  1. Laws, J. L. (1975). The psychology of tokenism: An analysis. Sex roles, 1(1), 51-67.
  2. Diehl, A. & Dzubinski, L. (2017). An overview of gender-based leadership barriers. In S. R. Madsen's (Ed.), Handbook of research on gender and leadership. (pp. 271-286). ProQuest Ebook Central.
  3. Derks, B., Van Laar, C., & Ellemers, N. (2016). The queen bee phenomenon: Why women leaders distance themselves from junior women. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(3), 456–469.

Every voice brings unique perspective and value and collectively can make our world and workplaces better. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) serve to amplify everything we do; a culture and environment that actively values DEI makes us stronger, more creative, more competitive, sustainable, and just plain better. Learn more about our DEI work.

Filed Under: Our People, Minneapolis, DEI