Bettering the Balance, Bettering the World

I think we are witnessing a gigantic movement for gender equality, coming from the rank and file, from society.” –U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, 2019 World Economic Forum

We’ve just celebrated International Women’s Day, but its theme is relevant throughout 2019 and beyond. #BalanceforBetter is a rallying cry that reminds us, gender parity is good for business, government and society at large. Secretary General Guterres voices what many of us in leadership positions are seeing:an increasing urgency on the part of people at all levels of our organizations for true gender equality.

Around the globe, we’ve made great strides toward gender parity. However, we still have a long way to go. In the corporate arena, women have increased in number through middle-management levels. But, in upper management and above, the numbers drop off drastically. Addressing that drop is key to achieving gender parity in leadership.

In 2013, I joined my first corporate board. At the time, women held just 11 percent of board seats at the world’s largest and best-known  . Flash-forward to 2018, where women held 17.7 percent of the board seats in the Russell 3000 Index. That’s less than a 1 percent increase per year. New IPOs are lagging even further behind. Of the top 25 IPO companies that went public in 2017, 80 percent had one or no female director on their boards. Female representation in the CEO role in large-cap companies lags that of boards. Take a look at the 2018 snapshot globally (click to enlarge):

A recent report from the Network of Executive Women painted a picture of the future if current attrition rates and trends continue for women.

More important than numbers alone, NEW’s study asked executive women why they leave. The top answers were not surprising to any female executive, as we’ve all lived them at one point or another:

  • Isolation: “Why am I the only woman at the table?”
  • Bias: “I shouldn’t have to look or think like you to be qualified.”
  • Transitions: “Support me after you promote me.”
  • Flexibility: “Why is my work schedule stuck in the 1970s?”

—The Female Leadership Crisis report, Network of Executive Women, 2018

Sarah Alter, CEO of NEW, recently shared this: “Gender parity is about more than any one measure. It means employers must expand and tailor their value proposition beyond one that centers solely on what men have traditionally valued, and into one that includes both genders equally.”

I think employers are up to the task; I don’t believe we’ll get to a doom-and-gloom scenario where women fade off the C-suite radar. I am an admitted fan of the positive, an advocate for progress. And I do see it occurring. I believe the pace of change will continue to quicken as male and female leaders work toward gender parity—in representation at all levels of our organizations, in pay equity, in promotion practices, tailored benefits and more.

It’s happening, in pockets—even in traditionally male-dominated industries. Three of the world’s top asset managers are led by  . Four out of the five largest U.S. military contractors have female CEOs. More than 230 firms were recently recognized for their gender equality efforts by being named to the 2019 Bloomberg Gender Equality Index. I’m proud to say two firms I’ve helped lead—Gap Inc. and Accenture—were among them. On average, women in GEI firms hold 26 percent of senior leadership positions, 19 percent of executive officer roles and 26.2 percent board representation. Additional good news: The GEI more than doubled in size from 2018. And if we look back a bit further, women had a 40 percent increase in executive-level positions between fiscal years 2014 and 2017. Talk about progress.

Standardized reporting frameworks like the GEI are critical to keeping leaders true to our course. Currently, only 10 percent of eligible companies are disclosing their workplace gender policies and practices. GEI firms give me hope, with concrete practices we should all be instituting, such as compensation reviews to identify gender-based variations and recruiting programs for women looking to return to work after a career break.

Entertainment executive Shonda Rhimes put it well when she said: “Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints.” I believe that path is going to become a freeway sooner than we realize. The momentum necessary for a movement to become a norm—well, I think that is fast approaching on the gender-equality front.

I am so certain of our future success that I have encouraged my daughter to join the technology industry—one historically known for having very few female leaders. I believe women like her will be welcomed differently than women of past generations. And I think the path we forged for these up-and-comers is a good one. We addressed barriers and built bridges where there were none.

As HR leaders, we can build upon that foundation and speed the change. We can ensure gender parity is a topic at the boardroom table and in the C-suite. We can push for concrete practices, measurements and transparency. We can be instrumental in bettering the balance and the world.

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