It is no longer enough to merely talk about unconscious bias against women in the workplace. If leaders want to close the gender gap — and achieve the economic benefits that come from achieving gender parity — they have to actively raise women up and create a culture of equality and transparency where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.
Unfortunately, not nearly enough is being done to push gender equality in the right direction. Indeed, a 2017 World Economic Forum report found that the gender gap in the workplace is actually getting wider, with gender parity not expected to be achieved for another 217 years. For context, the 2016 report optimistically predicted we’d be there in 170 years.
This was just one of many sobering statistics shared at Getting to Equal, the March 9 event in Chicago hosted by Accenture to celebrate International Women’s Day. More than 500 women (and men) attended the event, which featured presentations and panel discussions on how to achieve gender equality in the workplace, why it’s a good idea and why we still have so far to go.
“When we succeed in getting to equal, Accenture will be a better company for everyone,” declared CEO Pierre Nanterme in an opening video. Nanterme has pledged that 50 percent of the workforce will be female by 2025; the company is already at 40 percent.
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Data presented throughout the day-long event proved that making gender equality the norm in every company will be a long, drawn-out battle. Despite years of training programs and speeches about how to achieve gender parity in the workplace, and research showing that gender-diverse companies have consistently better financial returns than their male-dominated peers, lopsided levels of inequality continue to persist.
As of 2018:
- Women are still 22 percent less likely to reach manager level than their male peers, regardless of their qualifications.
- Only 24 of the Fortune 500 have female CEOs — that’s just 5 percent.
- Of the 16 Fortune 500 companies that release annual diversity data, only about 1 in 5 senior leaders are women.
- In 2018, women still earn just $73 for every $100 that a man earns.
However, for every frustrating data point there was an equally inspiring story of triumph from one of the many successful women (and men) who gave presentations and sat on panels.
Syndicated financial columnist Terry Savage shared how she was initially denied access to broker training at her first job, despite impressive qualifications, because she was a woman. But she fought back. After going to every department manager in the company, asking for help and agreeing to take lower pay than her male peers, she eventually became a broker. She ultimately became the first female trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
Wendy Davidson, president of U.S. specialty channels at Kellogg Co., shared how she spearheaded efforts to create nursing rooms at Kellogg after encountering women pumping breast milk in the bathroom stalls. Davidson noted that while she had been fortunate enough to have her own office when she became a mother, she realized she needed to be a champion for other women’s rights in the workplace. “Sometimes it takes courage to stand up and speak up in a male-dominated business environment,” she said. But it’s necessary for women in leadership roles to pave the way for the next generation.
And Danielle Brown, CIO of Brunswick, the global lifestyle product manufacturer, shared how she was one of only two black people in the computer science department at her university, but that she didn’t let it deter her from getting that degree. She also talked about the importance of having a strong mentor and sponsor early in her career at DuPont, who put her forward for stretch assignments that ultimately helped her become head of IT at DuPont before taking the CIO position at Brunswick two years ago. “He took a chance on me and it opened doors,” she said.
The significance of being a mentor and champion for women was a recurring theme throughout the event, where speakers shared how they benefitted from the support of a senior leader. Speakers also challenged male and female executives alike to help pull others up and to question their own daily biases in the workplace.
During her interactive session on creating positive disruption, Tanarra Schneider, group director of Fjord at Accenture, challenged every participant to commit to changing one thing they do at the office. Whether it is inviting a colleague with opposing views to lunch, sponsoring a young woman for a stretch assignment or simply acknowledging the contribution of a woman in a meeting the next time she is interrupted; even small efforts can make a difference in someone’s career, Schneider said.
This wasn’t just a feel-good challenge. Much of the event was predicated on research conducted by Accenture, which identifies 40 factors that have been statistically proven to influence gender diversity and advancement in the workplace. The factors are grouped under three categories:
- A diverse leadership team that sets, shares and measures equality targets openly.
- Policies and practices that are family-friendly, support both genders and are bias-free in attracting and retaining people.
- An empowering environment that trusts employees, respects individuals and offers freedom to be creative and to train and work flexibly.
In companies where these factors are most common, the study found that women are four times more likely to reach senior manager and director levels; and that when there are women in senior leadership roles there are almost three times more women on the fast track than in organizations in which all senior leaders are male.
The research also found that the benefits of gender diversity extend beyond just women. In companies where the 40 factors are common, men were more than twice (118 percent) as likely to advance to senior manager/director level than men in companies in which the factors are less common; and 95 percent of all employees said they are satisfied with their career progression, love their job at least most of the time and aspire to be promoted and to be in a senior leadership position.
Companies hoping to attract the best talent and to create a culture where people are passionate about coming to work should pay attention to this research and figure out how they might weave some of these factors into their own cultural fabric.
It starts with being intentional, said Gavin McCarty, director of legal services business for WEC Energy Group. In an Equality in Practice panel, he noted that his company cares deeply about its culture of safety, so they mention it in every meeting. He argued that companies who take diversity and inclusion seriously should take the same approach. “Until we are purposeful about diversity and inclusion, it won’t get done,” he said.
Sarah Fister Gale is a freelancer based in the Chicago area. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.