What are we celebrating?
On August 26th, we celebrate ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting women the right to vote. And, since 1971 when the U.S. Congress designated that day as “Women’s Equality Day,” people across the country gather for special activities, lunches, speeches and programs ranging from the silly to the somber to recognize this achievement.
It is appropriate to recognize, celebrate and remember the sacrifices and hard work resulting in the 19th Amendment. The right to vote opened the door to women’s participation in the political process, and other civic activities, leaving their mark on legislation at local, state and federal levels. We even came within a hair of moving into the White House.
But, as we celebrate this major achievement for women’s equality, let’s also remember that while we’ve made undeniable strides in the world of politics, in other sectors – particularly the business world – women have not fared as well.
Today, women run 27 of the S&P 500 companies (about 5.4% of the total) according to research group Catalyst. And, while the proportion of women-led Fortune 500 companies reached its highest level in the history of the Fortune 500 list in June 2016, it represented only 6.4% of the total. When Marissa Mayer left Yahoo, it dipped to 6.2%. The recent departures of Mondelez International, Inc. chief Irene Rosenfeld and Avon Products, Inc.’s Sherri McCoy shrinks the slim ranks of women in command of the biggest U.S. businesses even more.
Certain business sectors, especially those working in the STEM arena, are experiencing particular difficulty finding, mentoring, and promoting women to leadership positions.
Google is currently undergoing an investigation into alleged gender pay inequality and it is not alone. The tech sector has been the focus of numerous media reports focusing on the lack of gender balance in hiring and promoting practices.
How do we turn this around, not just in STEM-focused businesses, but in the wider workplace universe as well?
As women, let’s begin by supporting, not undercutting each other. Let’s stop being the woman who made it but doesn’t see the need or responsibility to support those women who are coming up in the ranks; or the “ boss” unreasonably piling on the work and then complaining about the resulting work product; or the executive demeaning the efforts of and cutting down other women who they might see as competitors; or the “catty colleague” complaining about other women to executive colleagues.
Oh yes, these “types” exist and, in my experience, are more numerous than you might want to believe.
What can we do to move past these roadblocks to workplace gender balance?
First, let’s recognize that women need to play a more positive and aggressive role in recognizing, mentoring, sponsoring and when possible, moving potential women leaders forward in their organizations.
Then, let’s work with our male executive colleagues to ensure that our HR policies and practices encourage gender balance. We need to pay particular attention to hiring and training practices, and work-life balance issues. We should also speak up for the establishment of formal mentoring and sponsorship programs and pay equity policies.
In fact, it’s a good idea for organizations to review their hiring and promotion policies routinely. Are they gender neutral? Is gender diversity ingrained in all corporate practices and cultures? Does merit drive hiring and promotion decisions? Is talent being developed properly? Are gender gaps in corporate culture and mindsets being addressed with inclusiveness programs? Are senior staffs encouraged (even incentivized) to mentor and sponsor promising executives…especially women?
Not only is this way of thinking good common sense, it also makes good business sense.
According to a recent McKinsey & Company study, companies with the highest gender diversity, as compared to the industry average, see a much greater return on equity (10%), a higher operating result (48%), and a stronger stock price growth (70%) when women are in senior executive positions, or on boards. In addition, having at least one woman on the board decreases bankruptcy by a full 20%.
While we recognize the good start we’ve made on our journey toward workplace gender balance, women still make 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man. By 2018 there will be 1.4 million open technology jobs in the U.S. and only 61% of those openings will be filled-and women will fill only 29 percent.
So yes, we have a lot of work to do and a long way to go before workplace equality is fully achieved, and we all need to work towards gender equity in the workplace. No one person or group will break the glass ceiling for good, but it is imperative that top executives make it a primary concern in order to make a real difference in closing the gap.