We’d all like to believe that workplace gender equality is getting better, but a study released by IBM on International Women’s Day challenges that assumption. According to the data, the number of women on executive boards and in C-suite positions hasn’t budged since 2019, while the pipeline to these senior levels actually may be shrinking—fewer women hold titles like SVP, VP, Director, and Manager in 2021 than did in 2019. The report also found that just 30% of junior female managers reported having sponsors or mentors, further diminishing prospects for advancement.
I’ve spent my entire career in the tech industry, and I know what it’s like to be the only woman at the conference table. I’ve navigated both overt sexism and the subtleties of unconscious bias, all while maneuvering the daily balance of motherhood and career advancement. I’ve also personally seen the transformative impact of sponsors and mentors, on my own career and for many other C-level leaders. I don’t have all the answers to the complexities of gender equality, but I can speak from my experience and share my approach that blends data and culture.
We can’t solve what we can’t measure
Always pay attention to the data; it’s the fastest (and most equitable) route to true transformation. One absolute truth is that we can’t solve what we can’t measure. IBM’s study reported that 70% of companies are failing to make gender equality a priority. Yet if you surveyed CEOs, I expect far more than 30% would say they are focused on it. Clearly there’s a gap between perception and reality, and leadership means owning this gap and solving it.
Here’s an example. At one point in my career, during a routine compensation meeting with the human resources team, I realized that several senior women were being paid 5%–10% less than their male counterparts. I was shocked, because what I saw on paper didn’t match my belief that the company’s pay structure was fully equitable. We need to embrace moments that challenge our assumptions, because they can lead to breakthrough progress. On the spot, I requested and provided raises that brought employees up to pay equity.
Let’s challenge ourselves to take a hard look at our own numbers, even if they have improved over time, and then set realistic goals and benchmarks for how we can make better progress going forward. We need to be intentional and take action on the data. Then, we need to find the places where data and culture meet.
Create a Culture of Leadership Coaches
When I think about the breakthrough moments in my own career and speak to other women who have taken on the CEO role (or even VP and SVP titles), there’s often one major differentiator that helped them successfully make that step. It has to do with a leadership culture of coaches.
A few years ago during an annual employee review, we studied our promotion track and saw clearly that women were by and large matching men through the junior and mid-levels, but there was one pivotal promotion level where the numbers for women fell off a cliff. There was no clear statistical reason for this dramatic drop off, so we started to think beyond the data and realized that we were looking at the very point where members were expected to transition from team members to team leaders. Qualitatively, we started to see examples of women who were struggling with this transition.
One high-performing female product leader, for example, had a reputation for doing great work—and then freezing up in meetings with senior company leadership. Hers wasn’t a talent problem, it was a confidence problem. Seeing this, I offered to coach her on this one very specific shortcoming in her professional skill set, and very quickly she started “showing up” in these senior meetings in a whole new way. This fairly minor course correction helped her take off and earned her a promotion. This type of coaching and mentoring (from both women and men) can be a game-changer if we all personally invest in it.
Don’t Wait Your Turn
I would encourage more women to adopt a “don’t wait your turn” philosophy. Company leaders also need to consciously reward employees who speak up and take chances. Recently we held a company-wide town hall meeting, and a junior employee with no direct reports or management title asked to lead one of the sessions. Yes, she was an unusual person to address the entire company, but she was prepared, confident, and knocked it out of the park. I was thrilled to see her success, but what made me even happier is that the entire company got the message that no one should “wait their turn.” She didn’t wait to be asked—she saw an opportunity to add value and seized it with confidence. As a result, she is now seen in a new light and others know they can do the same.
Experience tells me that these ripples of cultural change can create tidal waves, and now is a moment when we can all help accelerate change. Yes, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women. Yet, for those of us working remotely, this experience and our technology can also be an equalizer if we are intentional about it. Whether in a Zoom meeting or on Slack, we can all have a voice in the conversation—if leaders set an example of equality.
Let’s process the sobering results of the IBM survey by embracing workforce gender equality as an issue that each of us can and must solve. Data matters. Culture matters. Big policy changes and seemingly small movements all make a difference. Let’s fight complacency and challenge ourselves to be better, because we’re all in this together.
Lisa Utzschneider is CEO of Integral Ad Science, a global leader in digital ad verification.