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How A Group Of CEOs Plans To Solve Gender Inequality At Their Companies

A newly formed group of executives from large companies hope to hold each other accountable for their gender hiring goals.

How A Group Of CEOs Plans To Solve Gender Inequality At Their Companies
[Photo: Flickr user Ted Goldring]

Technology may be pushing the rate of change ever faster, but so far, no app or bot has been able to accelerate the pace of parity for women in leadership.

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According to the most recent report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey, women account for only 20% of staff at the senior vice president level and 20% of line roles that lead to the C-suite. This is based on the report’s survey of 132 companies that employ more than 4.6 million people. This is a problem because line roles are often a direct pipeline to the C-suite. In 2015, 90% of new CEOs in the S&P 500 were promoted or hired from line roles. Overall, this has translated to having only 27 female CEOs at the helm of major public companies, according to the latest S&P Capital IQ. No wonder Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg lamented, “If NASA launched a person into space today, she could soar past Mars, travel all the way to Pluto, and return to Earth 10 times before women occupy half of C-suite offices.”

Frustrated by the incremental gains, a group of female business leaders got together in June 2015 to see if they could find a way to speed up women’s progress. The result of brainstorming with a larger group of male and female CEOs, executives, board chairpersons, and academics is a newly launched coalition called Paradigm for Parity (P4P).

Their call to action is to achieve full gender parity in all businesses across all levels of corporate leadership by 2030, with a near-term goal of women holding at least 30% of senior roles. To meet the metric, the coalition came up with a five-point action plan that includes setting measurable targets for women’s representation at every level and communicating that progress regularly, providing both mentors and sponsors for high performing women, basing promotions on performance and not just presence in the office, and training employees to identify unconscious bias.

A broad range of leaders who have pledged to make this happen are the CEOs of Accenture, Bank of America, CocaCola, Huffington Post, LinkedIn, and more than 20 other organizations.

The Importance Of Transparency

P4P doesn’t have any formal measures in place to hold participating companies accountable, but it encourages them to report on progress. As for the early goal of achieving 30% parity, P4P cochair Ellen Kullman stated that “companies are in very different places” with gender diversity. Rather than push for parity immediately, the cochairs and the other executives agreed that 30% would be a good shorter-term metric. “Showing real progress creates momentum,” Kullman says.

For instance, some companies have already made progress toward gender parity in leadership. Pierre Nanterme, chairman and CEO of Accenture, who was also on the conference call announcing the program, spoke of the company’s current progress toward its own diversity goals. In February, Accenture became the first major consulting firm to publish a detailed report card on the diversity of its workforce. In the U.S., women account for 36% of its staff, and about one-third of its executive team. Said Nanterme, “Going public is incredible incentive to exceed the goals.”

One company that’s planning to go public as a result is global leadership advisory firm Egon Zehnder. Karl Alleman, the U.S. managing partner who also signed the pledge, points out that the company has already made strides. “We are applying the P4P to the consultant group, which is made up of 472 consultants, 33% of whom are female. In the firm, we have just under 1,800 employees, 67% of whom are female,” he explains. Additionally, he says 40% of the firm’s executive committee is female.

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Now Alleman says Egon Zehnder is planning to share its diversity profile on its external website soon, but it will first be shared internally in January.

The willingness of these companies to publish progress stands in sharp contrast to a recent announcement by Twitter, eBay, Salesforce, and Pinterest, which have decided to delay the release of their latest diversity stats and hinted that future reports may focus more on hiring initiatives.

The Importance Of Sponsorship

Another big piece of P4P’s so-called road map for parity includes providing sponsorship so female employees can be primed for leadership roles. Each of the six executives on the call reiterated the importance of sponsorship–someone within the company actively advocating for an employee’s advancement–to get more women promoted.

A 2014 survey of 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates found both men and women equally ambitious, yet men were significantly more likely to have positions in senior management, direct reports, and profit-and-loss responsibility. More recent research from Katina Sawyer and Anna Marie Valerio published in the Harvard Business Reviewrevealed that not only do male sponsors help level the playing field for their female proteges, they tend to do so by involving both men and women to help with that advancement.

Sawyer and Valerio write:

Although many organizations have attempted to fight gender bias by focusing on women–offering training programs or networking groups specifically for them–the leaders we interviewed realized that any solutions that involve only 50% of the human population are likely to have limited success.

By being more inclusive, these “male champions” send the message that they care about the entire workforce more broadly.

Although P4P cochair Sandra Beach Lin maintained that each company would choose how they wanted to share their progress, shining a light on the sponsorship process could go a long way toward educating other companies on how to advance talented candidates from within.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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