It's time for business to 'lean in' on gender equality

March 8 marks International Women’s Day and is an excellent opportunity for business to take stock of its progress on promoting gender equality.

It is widely acknowledged that in many parts of the world there are significant gaps in women and girls' access to education, employment, and representation in government.

While government and civil society continue to play a role in promoting gender equality, increasingly, companies are stepping up and recognizing that women’s empowerment is also a key driver of good business performance.

In countries like Canada, where there is a strong legal framework for women’s equality, it might seem less obvious where progress can be made. Here are some figures to demonstrate why asking women to ‘lean in’ to close the gender gap hasn’t achieved the gains we’ve been looking for.

Here in North America, we know that women are underrepresented in leadership roles:

  • Women make up 46% of the North American labour force
  • Women are 35% of MBA graduates
  • 5.2% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are female
  • Corporate boards in Canada are 10% female
  • 17% of female lawyers are equity partners

There are a variety of factors contributing to women’s under-representation at the corporate decision making table, including corporate structures and leadership models that favour putting career above work-life balance, or making decisions and taking risks that do not align with personal values.

These challenges affect women and men, however women are particularly impacted by factors such as dual career-family pressures, lack of opportunities in male-dominated industries, and gender discrimination and stereotyping that continues in the workplace.

One need only read the personal account of an engineer at a well-known US company who recently shared her story publicly, to be reminded that while women have come a long way, there is still room for (significant) improvement.

Diversity means better business performance

Earlier this week the world’s third-largest asset manager installed a statue of a young girl confidently staring down the iconic charging bull statue on Wall Street, all part of a campaign to improve board diversity and company performance by having greater gender parity on corporate boards.

Your board is your highest level of oversight and decision-making. Having different perspectives, experiences and knowledge represented at the table boosts decision quality. It just makes sense to have a board composition that reflects that of your employee and customer base. Not doing so leaves your leadership vulnerable to blind spots.

There have been countless studies (here’s another) confirming that companies with greater board diversity outperform their peers.

Investors recognize this and assess gender equality as a driver of corporate performance. This is reflected in the various indexes, standards and rules around disclosure and gender diversity in the workplace.

Agree but not sure what to do about it?

Here’s the kicker – the challenge is finding the systemic barriers within your organization that may be keeping women out of those leadership positions without intending to. But the good news is that there are easy ways to start making changes.

1- Make a commitment

Successful efforts start with intention. Deciding to make a change and to do things differently is the first step in making real impacts.

Join the United Nations Global Compact and sign up for the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), a collaboration between the Global Compact and UN Women. These seven principles offer guidance to businesses on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community, from establishing strong policies to building supply chain practices.

Commit to taking action on Goal #5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The World Economic Forum has recognized the important role of the private sector in achieving gender equality, along with the 16 other goals. Check out this guide for companies to align their strategies with the SDGs.

Based on their commitment to the WEPs and aligned with the SDGs, Accor Hotels has set ambitious targets for reaching gender parity in management and equal pay, as well as sensitizing and motivating male employees to understand and promote gender diversity.

2- Understand your baseline

We have all heard the adage, “what gets measured gets done,” and without knowing where we are at today it will be difficult to measure progress toward achieving the SDGs.

Start by taking stock of where you are today. How many women hold management positions in your organization? Senior leadership positions? How many women-owned businesses are part of your supplier network? How much of your community investment dollars go to supporting organizations and initiatives that empower women?

In addition to capturing data on gender representation in their business, understanding that the majority of the workforce in the fashion industry are women, H&M conducts gender research into its value chain using such tools as the Gender Action Learning System.

Ensuring your data can be desegregated according to gender is a first step in understanding where the barriers and opportunities lie in your organization. One CEO shared her experience of championing diversity for years, but then taking a look at the numbers and seeing a lower percentage of female board members than expected.

Ask the hard questions of your employees, to find out both how hiring managers select candidates and how employees feel about workplace culture. When INLE conducts gender assessments, we too often hear hiring managers say, “We hire based on merit; only the best person for the job.” Implicit bias causes people to hire candidates that look and act like them.

3- Be truly inclusive (include men)

Gender equality isn’t a women’s issue. It impacts all of us.

Issues that affect women in the workplace also impact men, such as flexible working schedules, maternity and paternity leave, and accessible childcare. We all want to spend more time with our families and because many of us are in households where both parents work, these are important aspects of our working lives.

Global initiatives such as UN Women’s HeForShe campaign recognize this and highlight the important role that men have to play in creating a gender equal world.

A group of business leaders in Australia launched an initiative called Male Champions of Change with the aim of increasing the number of women in leadership positions in business. Using their influence and access, they work to elevate gender equality as an issue of economic and social significance.

Will you #BeBoldForChange?

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is focused on taking action to forge a better, more inclusive, gender equal world. For a list of activities, events, and resources on gender equality visit the IWD website.

What is your business doing to empower women?