Around the world people are still trying to work out what the result of the US election will mean for them, their family and their country.
From a gender equality perspective, many had hoped to hear the sound of the most enduring of glass ceilings being shattered. It wasn’t to be. But that should not distract responsive leaders, in so many countries, who are adapting their public policies and their businesses to make them fairer and more profitable.
Gender has been a big issue over the past weeks and has taken a central role in public debate, often for the wrong reasons. But that should only serve to redouble our commitment to a transparent and accountable system in which businesses strive to achieve equal pay, equitable career flows and continuing investment in all employees, regardless of gender.
We urgently need to dispel any talk about gender equality in the workplace being just a “nice to have”, as not being fundamental to an organization’s core purpose. Gender equality cannot be a luxury item that gets time, attention and resources in good times, but is neglected and abandoned when the going gets tough.
Corporate change is hard, and if there is an excuse to avoid it, it will likely be used. If that happens, the world will hear a message that gender equality in the workplace doesn’t really matter. It is our duty to keep working towards inclusion and ensure that gender equality remains a desirable, measurable strategic objective.
The economic dividends
A key argument comes from one of the world’s most powerful women, head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde. She told delegates at a conference in Washington DC that ensuring equal pay and economic opportunities for men and women is an “economic no-brainer”, and vital for prosperity. "It's actually good for growth,” she explained. “It's good for diversification of the economy, it's good for reducing inequality and, from a micro point of view, it's also good for the bottom line of companies."
Equal pay is a clearly measurable metric, but a wider approach to economic participation and empowerment – of both women and men – benefits societies and organizations as well as individuals. Companies with high gender equality scores surpass the returns on investment seen by companies with lower gender scores.
Our work in assessing and certifying companies for their gender equality performance across 46 countries (in collaboration with RobecoSAM, the leading asset management company calculating the Dow Jones Sustainability Index portfolio) showed an 11% increase in performance for more gender equal companies for the period 2004-2014. Over the same timeframe, the companies with high gender equality scores outperformed the rest of the market, while the low gender equality portfolio underperformed. It should come as no surprise that being bullish on women is one of billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s main investment strategies.
Workplace gender equality does not happen naturally
Before the US election this November, there was a widespread assumption that gender equality would simply occur naturally over time. It led to a feeling that organizations could just continue doing what they were already doing and somehow that would lead to the desired result of inclusiveness.
We kept hearing: “Oh, gender equality, that’s so 80s, we’re over that.” A broad inclusion and diversity strategy is of course vital, but if it’s built on the assumption that gender equality has been acquired or will somehow look after itself, that strategy is deeply flawed. The group that is historically overrepresented in positions of authority and power – whether by gender, race or social status – will not simply hand down their acquired status and positions. It just doesn’t happen.
To overturn this dynamic, nothing is more powerful than reminding ourselves that inclusiveness and gender equality in the workplace is not a zero-sum game: the misplaced assumption that the rise of women equals the fall of men; that if the historically underrepresented group wins, all the others will lose.
However, this type of backlash is not uncommon as the historic dynamics evolve to become more balanced. It is vital to acknowledge it and to address it in the most straightforward way possible, by emphasizing the specific as well as the shared benefits that gender equality brings to women, men and organizations.
When the CEO of a major company told his leadership team that he would be introducing a gender equality programme, he was challenged by a senior colleague, who asked: “So are you telling me that I now don’t stand a chance of being promoted, because you will just be promoting women?” The CEO’s answer was a truly enlightened one: “Not at all, I am simply telling you that from now on there will be more competition.”
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It’s time to re-establish the foundations
In this new era, we need to bring people back to the fact that gender equality in the workplace is linked to economic opportunity and to sustainable economic growth.
But making it happen requires a relentless pursuit of our goal. We will only achieve that goal with a systematic and structured effort to embed the values of inclusiveness in the fabric of our organizations. With that approach, such fundamental values and truths become bigger than any one individual, even if that individual is sitting in the Oval Office.
Not long ago, we had the privilege of working with the White House Council on Women and Girls and the White House Domestic Policy Council. We engaged with the CEOs of some of America’s biggest companies as they made a pledge to the American economy and to President Barack Obama that they would close the gender pay gap in their organizations and pursue equality.
For the first time in years it felt like our goal of making gender inequality a distortion of the past was within close reach. We need to ensure that nothing changes this.