While I was on my way to present a keynote about gender equity in the workplace as part of the Press for Progress event at the 2018 IBM Think conference, I couldn’t help but think about how much has changed and yet how much has stayed the same.
Thanks to social media, women and men have come together over the last few years in ways and in numbers that we have never seen before. Women who were victims of anything from sexual assault to pay disparity are challenging the power imbalance that, no matter how loud or vast the voices, continues to thrive. And women are finally not alone in their efforts to level the playing field; men have also started using their platforms to voice the need for change.
For over a decade of fighting inequity, I have been asked the same question by family, friends, and strangers alike: Why are people (i.e., me) still talking about women in business? The simple answer is: because we are nowhere close to done. It’s an easy enough justification to make. The representation of women in the boardroom and C-suite has barely moved and the percentage of women VC partners and female-founded high growth startups continues to be in the single digits.
The stagnation, and in some cases backward movement, of equity among the genders remains constant because leaders are treating symptoms and failing to identify and correct the systematic root causes that continue to undermine progress.
When it comes to sexual harassment, boards are finally acting against high-ranking executives who have a history of this type of behavior; yet that is not enough. Companies committed to increasing the representation of women in positions of influence are doing so by creating new policies that clearly hold each person accountable for enabling or engaging in discriminatory behavior – with strong descriptions of said behaviors.
Critical one-size-fits-all systematic constructs such as compensation and benefits packages, work design, and succession planning for C-suite and other positions of influence continue to prevent women from thriving. Stagnation will turn to progress only when corporate-wide policies that demolish sexual discrimination and harassment practices are put into place. Women are not the same as men. Women experience work and the leadership journey differently than men, yet the status quo perpetuates the imbalance of power in place.
IBM, as an early driver of workplace equity (demonstrated clearly by high percentages of diverse talent at every level and function of the business including CEO Ginni Rometty at the helm – one of the few female CEOs in the industry), has embraced gender equity as a business imperative since the 1930s. And it is not alone. Noting the continuing dearth of women in tech and the need for inclusive cultures, SAP CEO Bill McDermott has invested in and publicly committed to driving gender equity at every level of the company.
The event was the brainchild of IBM CMO Michelle Peluso. She and her team knew that it was time to finally change the gender equity dialogue from “why” to “how” to make material changes that transform the way we work and lead. “Women are ready. Arguably, we’ve never been readier. Now, it’s about creating a recruiting, onboarding, promotion, and retention culture of inclusion. It’s about signing up for real progress and holding oneself accountable. The women are there. The best practices are there,” says Peluso.
There was no doubt by anyone at Press for Progress that real change will not and cannot be realized until men and women work together. “For men, who themselves are fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, friends, bosses, mentors, sponsors, and so much more… the time is now,” says Peluso. Yet, in the post #metoo and post-Weinstein world, many men are unsure of what their roles are, causing a reluctance to get involved without being invited to do so. Their apprehension is understandable. We are living in a time where words or actions, although well intended, may result in doing more damage than good.
Open discussions between the women and men who share a belief in creating material change are the first step to lift the barriers to male advocacy and replace it with personal accountability. The next step is for men to evangelize the need for males to get involved, starting with the one they see in the mirror. “Change needs to happen faster and the opportunity to do that is now. To accelerate change, it is incumbent on male leaders like myself to not only support this, but to actively engage and act, open doors, and learn. We will all be more successful in a more inclusive workplace that mirrors our world,” says Bob Breitel, director of Global SAP Alliance at IBM.
According to the World Economic Forum, parity among the genders will not be in place for 217 years. This is a 47-year increase from what was predicted in 2016. The time for change is now: different conversations, personal accountability, pressure on leaders, and aiming for a 50:50 representation of men and women actively working together to move the needle.
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This story first appeared on SAP Innovation Spotlight.