The Gender Equity Imperative: Business Leaders Have a Role to Play

By  - 

The world seems to have shifted on its axis. We have seen some ugly flashpoints in recent months, including the rise of a new political power in the U.S., the devastating events in Charlottesville, Va., and mounting pressure to address sexual harassment on college campuses and in the workplace. However, periods of turmoil can create renewed focus and energy.

We are seeing people coming together to form new alliances and movements for change. Women, for example, are coming together in greater numbers globally than ever before, demanding that they be heard and that action be taken.

In the business world, while we can’t change the global dialogue, we can transform the conversation at work, build bridges across differences, and support the changing of behaviors and the creation of workplaces in which everyone has an equal chance to succeed. Excluding groups or individuals benefits no one. When this happens, those who are excluded may feel like they are outsiders and don’t belong. This can be the experience of a woman in a workforce typically led by men, a man in an industry mostly composed of women (i.e., nursing), or an LGBTQ employee who is seen as being different. These scenarios often cause individuals who are deemed as “other” to be disconnected from the power structures at the top. Women of color, for example, often face mounting pressure and undue burdens in the workplace because of their race or ethnicity, sometimes causing them to fare worse than their white female peers.

Although progress has been made for women in workplaces across the country, there is still much work to do, as they are not represented equally at all levels of management in organizations. Women hold only 21.2 percent of all board seats at S&P 500 companies, while women of color hold just 3.1 percent of Fortune 500 board seats. In addition, female employees are often paid less than men.

The challenges women face at work, including gender stereotypes, unintended biases, and sexism, can’t be solved by women alone. It’s time for those in positions of power to step forward and knock down barriers that are holding back half of the talent pool.

While some make the argument that there are not enough qualified women for senior roles, this is simply not true. Until we ensure a level playing field for all individuals to thrive equally, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, the majority — which in senior leadership are white men — will continue to reign. Surrounding yourself with those who look like you, comfortable as it may be, fosters groupthink, which research has shown stifles innovation and creativity. All companies seek the competitive edge, and that edge comes from listening to and learning from diverse perspectives and insights.

Business leaders need to take intentional action to break the deadlock around giving equal access to all talent — helping to ensure that all women are getting the right opportunities that research has proven can propel people to the top. The advancement of women into leadership roles needs to be treated like any other business objective.

Governments, too, need to be supporting this momentum. Countries including Australia and the United Kingdom have put into place frameworks and targets using a “comply and explain” model rather than compulsory quotas, which has proven successful in accelerating progress for women. Also, in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet made international news with its equal makeup of men and women. This balance was no accident, but the culmination of a strategic program Trudeau established called “Ask Her to Run,” which encourages women to run for office. Intentional leadership such as this sends a powerful message to other leaders to act.

Gender parity doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen without a concerted effort and commitment. However, the more intolerant the world, the more responsibility there will be on businesses to embody progressive, fair, and inclusive principles.

Tia T. Gordon is the vice president of global communications at Catalyst. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Catalyst is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity.