Women have achieved many advances in the workplace over the years, but several major problems still persist. Working in Silicon Valley makes both of these statements quite apparent. The media often praises advancements, as they should, but in some way, this praise gives false hope to the true remedy. 

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with one of tech's thought-leaders on gender equality,  Michelle Peluso. I had originally connected with her for advice on emerging B2B marketing strategies but was instantly drawn to her point of view about how we can fix the gender gap through initiatives like Be Equal. She sets her sights on creating and supporting campaigns that engage industry and society at large in promoting the advancement of gender equality and diversity in business leadership.

Peluso is currently senior vice president of digital sales and chief marketing officer at IBM. She sits on the board of Nike and has a laundry list of past entrepreneurial accomplishments. She is a known and trusted international thought leader about diversity in the workplace, and is trusted by her peers and followers because of her willingness and desire to take tactical action. ​

The priority paradox and "first mover" advantage. 

Peluso recently authored Women, Leadership, and the Priority Paradox, a study by the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) that brings the data and insights from 2,300 organizations interviewed. One of the most prominent findings of the study is that for all the talk of gender equality, women fill only 18 percent of senior corporate leadership roles of the surveyed organizations.  

The reason? There is a priority paradox: 79 percent of companies, from startups to global enterprises, haven't made fostering gender equality a formal business priority. However, progress is afoot and the data shows big opportunities for the companies that do embrace diversity in a real way.  

It might sound like we're marching in quicksand, but I came away from our discussion feeling hopeful. Peluso pointed to a small cadre of organizations, the so-called "first movers." Representing only 12 percent of the organizations surveyed, these companies push hard for advancing women and share a basic set of characteristics that promote inclusion. 

The impact of equality on profits, innovation, and satisfaction. 

"First and foremost, first movers make it a formal business priority. Second, they embrace the responsibility to take action," said Peluso. 

While the majority of organizations in the survey agree that gender equality requires change, 29 percent more of first movers are passionate about taking action than at other organizations. And they are motivated by profit, not just principle. In fact, 100 percent of first movers believe that gender-inclusive organizations will be more financially successful, compared to only 38 percent of other organizations.  

There's a good reason to think that way. The IBV data shows that those who are committed to hiring, mentoring and promoting women leaders overwhelmingly report higher profits, greater innovation, and improved levels of employee satisfaction compared to their rivals. Other studies also support this conclusion. The Peterson Institute for International Economics, for example, found that "the presence of more female leaders in top positions of corporate management correlates with increased profitability of these companies."

 "We want to set the table for a more equal workforce, and there are very practical things companies large and small can do TODAY to help move more women into leadership positions," said Peluso. The study lays out a road map for tactical changes that any company can take today.

Set goals.

It's easy to say you'd hire a woman if the right one showed up. That relaxed approach won't get it done. Peluso advises to "make advancing women a formal business priority. Start at the top with buy-in from the C-suite. It is important to get the leadership team on board and accountable for results by co-creating goals and measuring progress."  

Go beyond your comfort zone. 

The easy hires (people we know in our network) often lock in the status quo and its deadening groupthink. This can have a compounding effect in fast-growing early-stage companies, as those early employees can quickly attain an outsize amount of control as they rise through the ranks. These like-minded individuals quickly become like-minded executives making key decisions, without the friction necessary for success.

Game-changing ideas, by contrast, are much more likely to come from the back-and-forth of people who think differently. Fostering a culture of inclusion means moving out of your comfort zone.

Get men involved.

Gender equity has to be a shared value across the business--and not just a niche for women. I had written before about the necessity for men to be involved in gender inclusion. We need to focus our energy on the men that truly believe in the inclusion mission and stop wasting our time on the individuals that don't. 

Peluso, who originally taught me about this strategy, said her colleague, Tom Rosamilia, a senior vice president at IBM, was exactly the kind of person needed to make change a reality.  "Tom talks to his team about questioning people on the language they use. They might refer to a woman as 'bossy,' while a man with a similar personality might be dubbed a 'natural leader.' Tom reinforces how calling out unconscious bias is important because it can be fixed immediately." 

Peluso points out that the main thing, both for fairness and the bottom line, is to get moving on this issue. Too many executives are treating gender equity as an outcome that will happen on its own. According to Peluso -- and the data -- it won't. 

"If you care about this," Peluso said, "if it is a priority for you, now is the time to close the gap between what we say and what we see, and get serious about what our commitments are to inclusion."  

All of this can only be achieved through a concerted effort by all of us -- men and women alike. We can all take immediate action to address this gap and drive progress in gender equality in the workplace.

Published on: Apr 30, 2019
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