You’ve probably heard by now that despite real progress and much more mainstream attention over the past few years, real gender diversity still eludes much of corporate America. According to well-publicized research findings from LeanIn.org and McKinsey earlier this year, gender parity is still some 25 years off at the SVP level and a whopping 100 years distant in the C-suite.
This is troubling news–and not just for women’s activists like me. Empowering women in the workplace isn’t just good for women, their families, and companies’ balance sheets. Taking real steps to accelerate gender diversity is crucial for wide-scale social progress and economic growth today and tomorrow.
The Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentage of women board directors report a 66% higher return on investment than those with the lowest percentage. Boosts like that can have ripple effects far outside the business sphere. BNY Mellon’s Womenomics initiative charts the slew of other issues that unleashing more women’s economic potential can help address, from raising overall GDP to improving the living standards–and therefore the range of opportunities–of the next generation of women.
But so far, many gender diversity efforts are falling short. Many are beset by key three problems:
- They rely on volunteers and lack regular programming or measures of success.
- Volunteers are motivated to help others and develop personally, but few have access to company-wide metrics that can validate their work, which can be discouraging.
- They lack an adequate budget or system for allocating funds consistently and purposefully.
These are all organizational challenges that bigger institutions–like businesses–are far better equipped to address than the bolted-on HR programs they sponsor or partner with can on their own. That’s why real forward progress has to happen from the top and needs to ramp up right now. Here’s where to start.
If you’re the CEO, especially a male CEO, you need to communicate that gender diversity is a top priority, then back it up with action. The LeanIn-McKinsey report found that employees rarely believe that either their top executives or direct managers are committed to women in practice, even when the expression of that commitment seems sincere. This means you need to have a clear, proactive mandate that starts at the absolute top. And it should come from the CEO or president so the organization believes it’s genuine.
According to Marlene Gordon, who heads up the Women in Leadership program at Bacardi (which–full disclosure–is a partner of my company’s annual S.H.E. Summit), “Without demonstrated, full-on active commitment by senior leaders in their organization, women in leadership will remain a much-talked-about goal” that’s never actually accomplished.
Instead, says Gordon, “Senior leaders must be in the front lines–inspiring, engaging, and supporting women in leadership as a business initiative.”
Don’t just task your HR director to start working harder on gender diversity. Appoint someone to do just that. Then pay them for it.
Too many companies simply add the title of their newly minted women’s program onto a staffer’s existing role, or ask for volunteers to chair in-house women’s networks. Some then justify those weak measures by claiming that they’re meant to inspire grassroots commitment throughout the organization.
That’s the wrong approach. Real commitment means putting resources behind a new staff position dedicated exclusively to empowering and advancing female talent. Make sure the person you hire is genuinely passionate about the cause and has a track record to show for it.
As leaders from Warren Buffett to Hillary Clinton have pointed out, women represent the largest untapped resource in the world. We make up more than half the world’s population and influence some 85% of purchasing decisions. In short, gender diversity could be a powerful form of business innovation.
Plenty of forward-thinking companies have innovation divisions that try and predict the future, disrupt old models, and develop cutting-edge products. They don’t nest those divisions inside their human resources departments. So why shouldn’t gender diversity efforts be a part of corporate innovation?
I appreciate companies that advertise how their brand empowers female consumers or pledge resources toward women’s causes (women in STEM and self-esteem campaigns have been two of the most popular over the past year). That’s important work, and too few companies do it.
But it’s one thing to use those efforts for marketing purposes and another to live by them every day. Your company’s commitment to women starts first and foremost with the experiences of those who work for you.
Sure, it’s easy to set goals for the next 12 months or even the next five years. But how about the next 15 years? The United Nations has challenged leaders of all sorts (from business to education to government) to make 50-50 gender equality a goal by 2030, as a part of its 17 sustainable development goals for the world.
More companies need to start responding to this call right now, lest risk being left behind as competitors gain an edge by scooping up the best female talent. The individual milestones you set can start off fairly modestly. For instance, you might commit to having one senior-level woman in every department by 2030. Or you can set more ambitious goals, like steadily increasing percentage-growth benchmarks for female hires each year.
With those long-term goals in mind, my company has launched the #SHE2030 hashtag to encourage individuals and organizations to drive or start a women’s movement across any issue or industry. We want to hear from you–because we can accomplish much more, much faster if we do it together.
Claudia Chan is the CEO of S.H.E. Globl Media Inc., the multiplatform women’s empowerment company behind the global conference S.H.E. Summit. A women’s leadership expert and social entrepreneur, her life’s work is to accelerate global gender equality by unleashing women to reach their highest potential, while getting them behind women’s issues that matter to them.