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Closing the leadership gap

Woman looking out of office window

A recent issue of the Harvard Business Review highlighted the world’s 100 best-performing CEOs. Eager to see who made the list and the secrets of their success, I quickly turned to the story, where I was just as quickly disappointed.

"In our solution, everyone wins through transparency and informed choice."

Staring back at me were photo after photo of men, mostly white. There were only two women in the entire group.

I was pleased to see that many in this best-of-the-best ranking lead through a lens of conscious capitalism, where higher purpose and creating value for community stakeholders is a key part of their strategy.

But I had to wonder: How much of their ascension to the c-suite was due, not to strategy and execution — but to the good fortune of being born male and white and to working in a business environment that unconsciously favors homogeneity?

I’ve decided that is a question I’ll leave to others who may be less optimistic about change. Rather than dwell on historical inequalities, I’ve decided to focus on relevant and pragmatic solutions.

I’m directing my efforts through a non-profit organization I established called ShowMe50.org. Our goal is to help companies increase to 50 percent the number of women in senior leadership positions.

We encourage women and men to overturn institutional policies and practices that preserve the status quo and prevent representative numbers of women from reaching their potential. In our solution, everyone wins through transparency and informed choice.

Roadblocks to leadership

My work related to gender led me to believe that there are four significant roadblocks for achieving true equal opportunity for women at work: gender bias, lack of transparent talent management practices, inflexible work environments and weak management accountability.

"Change requires an investment in ‘political capital.' "

These are topics commonly discussed at women’s leadership conferences and in private conversations. However, inside companies, women remain largely silent.

In part from a fear of retaliation and in part from resignation, we have accepted the internal practices as just the way things are … and will continue to be.

The problem is so complex it’s often hard to know where to begin. Michael Chamberlain of Catalyst, a nonprofit whose mission is to expand opportunities for women and business, believes disruption is the silver bullet for achieving gender parity in the workplace.

When companies are lauded for gender parity, Chamberlain wonders if their best-in-class ranking might be a polite way of saying that they’re only the best-of-the-worst. “If this is true,” he says, “is best-of-the-worst really our goal? Or must the system be disrupted in order to see real, meaningful change?”

The step-by-step approach advocated by ShowMe50.org may qualify as disruptive, but more importantly, it is designed to be logical and actionable. The platform helps employees answer the questions: “Is it worth it?” and “How can I do it?”

It addresses both the motivation and the ability to act. It encourages employees to take the gender leadership gap issue from the individual to the collective.

We believe that there are four areas that companies need to address: skill-based training on gender bias, transparency in performance evaluation and talent management systems, gender-neutral workplace flexibility that focuses on business agility and accountability.

How to move forward

"We have work to do to deliver on the promise of equal opportunity for women."

Speaking up about gender is not easy for anyone.  But when you harness the power of others, the job becomes more manageable.

Getting started can be as easy as talking about gender bias and transparency in talent management during lunch and coffee breaks, using the media to start a conversation and including men in the discussion. You’ll be surprised how many men are sympathetic to the biases women face.

When one person inside a company joins with like-minded peers and uses practical tools to achieve a mutually beneficial goal, change can happen. But as Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and co-founder of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women, says, change requires an investment in “political capital.”

What she’s saying is that we have to be willing to leverage our reputation and our network and create a little discomfort. That’s how commercial innovation happens. It’s also the way social impact innovation happens.

We have work to do to deliver on the promise of equal opportunity for women. But I’m optimistic that by working together we can give women and all qualified people the opportunity to compete on a level playing field for positions of leadership.

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Longitudes explores and navigates the trends reshaping the global economy and the way we’ll live in the world of tomorrow: logistics, technology, e-commerce, trade and sustainability. Which path will you take?

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