Why diversity needs your star power, as well as sponsors

lizzo

Women are still marginalised in the boardroom and in broader economic terms.

• Lack of diversity harms the bottom line.

• Opportunities for mentorship are common; sponsorship less so.

“You know you a star, you can touch the sky.”

Those lyrics are from Good As Hell by Lizzo, Time’s entertainer of the year and the personification of female self-affirmation. Lizzo goes on to say: “I know that it’s hard, but you have to try. If you need advice, let me simplify.”

It’s not easy. Women don’t always see themselves with the star power to touch the sky. Neither do the people they work with. To borrow from another Lizzo song, the truth hurts about diversity among our ranks. We’ve “got boy problems”; problems such as needing more men as allies and advocates.

Of the CEOs who make up the Fortune Global 500, only 14 are women, just shy of 3%. Of the CEOs who make up the US Fortune 500, only 6.6% are women – just a little better. And less than 0.01% are women of colour on either list. Another sobering statistic: in 2018, there were fewer appointments of women as CEO than appointments of men named Jeffrey in the US Fortune 500.

The problem isn’t confined to just the executive ranks. According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2020, it will take 257 years to achieve gender parity in terms of economic participation and opportunity. I’m glad that our great-, great-, great-, great-grandchildren will achieve gender equity, but can the world wait? Certainly, my granddaughters cannot. In order to deliver greater economic value and solve some of the world’s biggest challenges, everybody’s star needs the opportunity to shine – soon. That’s the power of inclusion, and it makes business sense.

We all need to step up to the plate – women and men. According to Harvard Business Review, when men are engaged as allies 96% of organizations see progress. However, a step change requires men to move from allies to sponsors. Advocates for women. Champions. You choose the title, but it’s the action that matters. Yes, you may face resistance, even backlash. That comes with changing the game. But, I challenge you to give lie to Lizzo’s question: “Why men great ’till they gotta be great?”

And to all the women out there, we should not be the ones to cast the first stone. Too often, we are not women’s best allies. If you’ve moved up, send the elevator back down for other talented women. And when the doors open, pull that next leader in, bring them up – advocate, champion, take action.

Gender inequity isn’t just a missed opportunity for women, though. It’s a missed opportunity for business and society. The International Monetary Fund estimates the losses from economic disempowerment of women range from 10% of GDP in advanced economies to more than 30% in regions like South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

It’s not just economic value that’s at stake. Achieving shared goals that benefit society, such as those outlined in the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda, will take the best minds working together. To realize WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab’s model of stakeholder capitalism, in which corporations focus on serving all of their stakeholders, we need to include the voices of all people. Members of the Business Roundtable, Dow included, recognize the value in this approach.

Evidence shows that inclusive environments lead to better organizational and business outcomes. Research demonstrates that the financial returns of companies with three or more women on their board are substantially higher than for companies that have no women on their board. But that’s not all. More diverse companies are also likely to have fewer environmental penalties, labour violations and product safety recalls. Why? Because having more women and other under-represented populations in executive positions contributes to a diversity of views and innovative solutions that lead to better decision-making.

But research is one thing. Real change is another. Too often the conversation is about how women and under-represented groups can learn to operate within the existing system, instead of changing systems to create a truly inclusive environment. Recognizing and addressing structural barriers that prevent the brilliance of all talented and skilled people to shine. That’s when businesses gain greater value. That’s when people feel truly valued and contribute to their fullest. To really move the needle, companies must focus on changing their cultures and making deliberate efforts to create paths to success for all.

Let’s take the leaky leadership pipeline. It’s hard to fix without acknowledging the structural impediments and implicit biases that block women and under-represented groups from climbing the ladder. When Dow began digging into why some high-performing US minorities were leaving mid-career, we found they reported having plenty of opportunities for mentorship, but not sponsorship. Leaders were more likely to talk to them about their advancement and less likely to advocate on their behalf. So, we implemented Advocacy in Action this year, a programme that pairs African American protégés with senior leader advocates. The program not only addresses leadership training for the protégés, but includes implicit bias training for the leader advocates.

As a woman and an African American, I know first-hand how exhausting it can be to constantly self-check – to waste vital mental energy worrying if my authentic self will be accepted. Worrying if I need to be twice as good, or even perfect, because I am held to a higher standard.

Lizzo encourages women to “boss up and improve your life”, and that’s an empowering and important message. But achieving equity isn’t just about women and under-represented groups changing and “bossing up”. It’s about change, period. All people stepping into the change they need to be. Businesses changing how they operate – not because they should, but because they must to succeed in today’s world. As we meet in Davos, let’s continue to put the focus on inclusion and creating a system where everybody can touch the sky.

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