At The Economist's Human Potential  conference this week, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of business equality consultancy 20-first , brought up an interesting point: Should we even consider women when thinking about diversity in the workplace?
The panel, which focused on intellectual diversity in business, started on an optimistic note, with the chairs of several major corporations indicating that gender balance was coming to the workplace.
"We realized that more than 80% of our purchases in stores are made by women," said Massimo d'Amore, CEO of PepsiCo Beverages Americas. "Yet only three years ago, 90% of our shopper insight people were men. Changes like this are happening as we speak."
"Change can happen," echoed Zabeen Hirji, chief human resources officer at RBC, who pointed out that roughly 40% of RBC executives are now female.
The CEO of 20-first struck a different tone.
"I have a lot of trouble with that word, diversity," Wittenberg-Cox said, pointing out that women represented majorities in both education and consumer purchasing decisions. "Whoever thought of calling 60% of your talent and 80% of your customers a diversity? They are your future."
She also contended that many corporate diversity efforts in the last 20 years failed because they focused on "Fix the Women" strategies, where businesses believe that with enough training and coaching, women will become "a little bit more like men, so perhaps we can promote them."
"It doesn't work. We just concluded a survey that shows 15% of executive committee members in the top American companies today are women," she explained. "If we want the human potential of 60% of the educated talent pool, it requires a different way of recruiting, motivating, retaining, and developing these people, who also happen to reflect a massive part of our customer base. Unless companies get it and get it quickly, we will continue to see what we've seen in the last decade: extraordinarily smart women [leaving] the corporate world because they realize they cannot make it."
"What are companies losing, when they lose all that talent?" she asked.