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Gender Equality: Tip-toeing to the Tipping Point

Jan 25, 2012 | Updated Mar 26, 2012

Heading back to Davos is a perfect time to reflect on the journey that began there last year -- a journey through the shifting landscape and learnings around gender inequality in the workplace. From tête-à-têtes with titans of industry at the World Economic Forum, galas and gatherings in NYC, roundtable dinners in Paris and luncheons in London, I've had unique access to academics, advocates and executives grappling with the sticky problem of workplace gender inequality.

Perhaps because I was a young CEO, I never paid much attention before to the 'glass ceiling' or other woes of women in the workplace... until a mid-career MBA at Oxford recently woke me up. A meager 10% of my classmates were women. As it turns out, that is pretty high. In 2011, women held 7.5% of executive officer top earner positions at Fortune 500 companies and a miniscule 3.6% of those firms have women as CEOs. According to a study by Pax World, Calvert and Walden Asset Management, a paltry 9.4% of directors on global corporate boards are women. We make up 46.7% of the US labor force, but in keeping with the global trend we hold fewer positions of responsibility and work part-time more frequently. And of course we're paid less than male peers: 17.2% less in the U.S., 18% less in the EU. According to Linda Basch, National Council for Research on Women (NCRW) President, the guy who sat next to me at Oxford is statistically likely to make $2M more than me over our lifetimes.

What is the problem? Nature or nurture? Are most of our sisters genetically hardwired to not seek out positions of power and influence -- and/or are there cultural and systemic blockages? What solutions are working to increase numbers of women leading in corporations and how can those be amplified and accelerated?

The World Economic Forum turned out to be the perfect place to begin a deep-dive inquiry. I arrived Davos this time last year to help The Gender Equality Project launch the first global certification system in gender equality. Controversy was swirling on the Forum's attempt to push female attendance up to 20% via the '5th badge,' an extra delegate slot for strategic partners bringing a woman from their executive team. Gender equality was debated in the buzzing Congress Centre halls, at the women leaders' dinner on the mountaintop and among the crowded receptions in the Belvedere hotel below.

Conversations there with the (male) CEOs of Ernst & Young, Accenture, Renault-Nissan and other global firms were enlightening. They shared a concern about the 'leaky pipeline' of women falling out in middle management, of not getting the ROI on their talent investments. They each spoke passionately about gender equality and diversity as key to sustainability and growth -- not as a feel-good add-ons, not CSR or reputation risk-management. And while a 2007 McKinsey survey noted that firms with more women in top management have higher operating income, are better at attracting talent and understanding customers, these executives were not waiting around for some academics to causally prove the business case that gender equality is smart business. They wanted the talent -- and the representation and resonance with the market where women do 65 percent of the global spending.

Through the New York City spring gala season I sat through awards for corporate executives from research and advocacy groups such as Catalyst and the NCRW who bemoan the overall outcomes even as they applaud efforts made by individual corporations. Progress has been painfully slow -- at the current rate of change it would take women executives more than 70 years to reach parity.

So with good intentions but slow progress by corporations, what is government's role as a change agent? We chewed on this over dinner in Paris as activists, media executives and coalition leaders celebrated the French parliament legislation requiring the largest company boards to be 40 percent female by 2015. The luncheon roundtable in New York hosted by U.K. Consul-General Lopez for the U.K.'s Home Secretary Theresa May drew a similar mix of players but had a distinctly different flavor. The US businesswomen had much less appetite for mandates. They were interested in middle-ground interventions such as the U.K. Secretary's 'Think, Act, Report,' calling for voluntary reporting on gender disparities in pay and position and Lord Davies' 'Women on Boards' report setting the government's desired target of 25% women on all boards by 2015.

But even those at polar opposites on quotas shared an agreement (and palpable frustration) that progress has stalled. And across continents they agreed on the need for sustained action at all levels: societal/governmental, corporate and individual.

This consensus resonated through the halls of Oxford during the women's leadership summit hosted by the Saïd Business School last fall. While the role of government policy was diplomatically sidestepped, businesswomen who traveled to the summit from Nigeria, Egypt, Romania, Thailand, Europe and the Americas joined leaders from an alphabet soup of acronyms -- WIBF, EWMB, EPWN - in agreeing on actions needed at the corporate and individual levels. In focusing on the leaky pipeline, what Council on Women World Leaders' Secretary General Laura Liswood described to me as the "Intake v. Upgrade Problem," women wanted access within corporations to informal networks, sponsorship and role models -- three prescriptions reiterated in the McKinsey report Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in the U.S. Economy. On individual action most women said the same thing in different languages: if women want to advance, we need to ask for what we want, to seek out positions with P&L responsibility and recruit sponsors who will help us succeed and advance -- to "lean forward" as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg eloquently advocates.

It is clear that sustainable, systemic change is critically needed if we are to reach the 30% tipping point of women in senior corporate roles. Government has a role to play and in the US we would do well to emulate the UK with policy charting the course, setting targets and timelines with voluntary reporting.

Corporations signing up for the UN Women's Empowerment Principles and joining the CEO Champions in Deauville is excellent and now we need what Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterme called "agenda with actions." Metrics and measurements help. The green movement needed the LEED standard and certification to get beyond 'green washing' and initiatives like the Gender Equality Project's certification based on a globally applicable standard can be helpful tools.

External pressure from the investor community such as those led by Pax World in the U.S and the 30 Percent Club in the U.K. is also needed. Helena Morrissey, co-founder of The 30 Percent Club and CEO of Newton Investment Management's $76b fund, puts it this way: "No one can come up with something that disproves the position that a better balanced board makes better decisions and is better for shareholders."

And, as McKinsey's study rightly notes, there is no disregarding imbedded mindsets of professional women. Women need to ask more for what we want, seek access to networks, sponsors and heed the warning of Madeline Albright that "there's a special place in hell for women who do not help other women."

As my train rolls through the mountains toward Davos, I wonder how the conversations will be different a year later. What has moved forward? And with eyes on the European debt crisis, China's GDP growth, the US presidential race, will the 'gender issue' even be a real agenda item? It must be. As Saadia Zahidi, head of the World Economic Forum's Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program, rightly asserts, "with the world's attention on job creation and economic growth, gender equality is the key to unlocking potential and stimulating economies."