Women As Levers of Change: December 2020 Roundtable Synthesis Report
Highlighting concrete actions that companies and other stakeholders can take to advance inclusion and women’s leadership.
While progress toward gender equity has stalled across the board amid a global pandemic, companies, government entities, and civil society can and must take steps to build more inclusive workplaces to address unique challenges that can only be tackled by diverse groups, according to female leaders across male-dominated sectors who came together in late 2020 for a roundtable discussion convened by FP Analytics on inclusion and women’s leadership.
In December 2020, bookending a year in which the coronavirus pandemic drove record numbers of women out of the workplace, and forced companies and individuals to adapt rapidly to new work practices, the roundtable gathered CEOs, vice presidents, and global department heads from consumer products, materials and extraction, manufacturing, service and transportation to build on the findings and recommendations of FP Analytics’ pioneering report, Women as Levers of Change. These 10 women, all of whom have had long and successful careers in which they have been the first or only woman to hold their position and worked to support other women into employment and leadership, were brought together to discuss best practices and guidelines for companies and individuals seeking to increase gender diversity in their workplaces.
This roundtable discussion was intended to produce a toolkit for pursuing active change. What resulted was an action-oriented conversation that identified and reinforced clear methods for increasing and mainstreaming diversity as part of corporate policy, practice, and targets. The discussion ranged from specific, effective policies that companies can use, to debates around the best way to bring male allies into the work of diversity, and what type of workplace atmosphere is necessary to ensure that organizations are truly inclusive. Participants emphasized that women of all classes and incomes have been particularly vulnerable to and affected by the coronavirus pandemic, making the creation of more equitable, inclusive workplaces even more vital to stem and reverse its effects.
Need to Turn Gender Goals Into Concrete and Measurable Actions
Participants from across industries— including energy, mining, consumer products, defense, technology, logistics, and finance—identified similar challenges and barriers both to female representation and to effective and sustained change in the workplace, finding a great deal of common ground both in their professional experiences and their opinions of what needed to be done. Barriers such as biases around female capability—particularly in work like manufacturing or high-level financial management—cause women to be discounted during hiring, promotion, and succession planning, and can discourage them to the point of driving them out of the company or industry entirely. All cited examples of pervasive gendered business practices that exclude or marginalize women—such as the stereotypical “golf course business meeting” —that notably exclude women from management-level discussions and inhibit advancement. Finally, participants discussed the difficulties in balancing personal and professional responsibilities, including their experiences of being treated differently—or having their challenges ignored—during pregnancy and early motherhood.
Collectively, the women at the roundtable agreed that creating working environments that are welcoming to and supportive of women requires making intentional changes in those workplaces, not forcing women to change to fit in, noting that “when it comes to male-dominated industries, our approach should never be to fix women, but it should be to fix the system in which we want women to be successful. If we want women to see those industries as welcoming and a place where they can be valued and accepted, then we need to create the environment and the culture where that can happen.” Roundtable participants also emphasized that change needs to be driven from all levels, as one woman said to widespread agreement, “You’ve got to have that tone at the top…that mood at the middle, and that buzz at the bottom,” emphasizing that everyone is responsible for making change because, “in the end, unless policy is embraced throughout the organization, it’s just words on paper.”
However, all were concerned that, after a few years of widespread enthusiasm for causes related to gender equality and diversity, such as the United Nations HeForShe project, progress on a number of measures has stalled. Within one participant’s company, for example, the organization’s progress toward Economic Dividends for Gender Equality (EDGE) certification, the global business standard for gender equality, has stalled because their governors have not yet elected enough women to their board to achieve the certification, despite widespread support for the project throughout the company. More broadly, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, released annually, reported in late 2019 that no country in the world has yet achieved gender wage equality, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have, in fact, reversed their progress since 2010. High profile woman-focused initiatives such as the U.N. Beijing Platform, launched in 1995, have also followed a pattern of attracting immediate attention before being forgotten or ignored in favor of more pressing concerns. Roundtable participants agreed that concrete action must be taken, examples set, and leadership established to spur further meaningful progress and build on momentum at the moment that it occurs. As one participant summed up: “How do we move the flywheel faster? Because I fundamentally believe that as we have more women in leadership, we are going to address all these other issues that are challenging, more holistically and quicker.”
Key Insights & Recommendations for Action
Building the Pipeline of Female Talent
Increasing representation via a cohort system creates a strong network of talent and support: When introducing new policies or pushing for greater diversity, organizations can use a cohort system, bringing in multiple women to a new role or division at once and thereby reducing the pressure on any individual to be the “first” or “only” representative of a group. Roundtable participants all agreed that having a support network of women and other underrepresented groups around them made their experiences as trailblazers easier and more sustainable in the long term, with one participant saying that “that type of camaraderie has served me well throughout my career and I have no idea how I would have survived without it.” The suggestion of a cohort system also aligns closely with findings from FP Analytics and other research organizations (including the International Labour Organization and The 30% Club) that a critical mass of representation is required for change to be effective, and for diversity to affect other outcomes such as profitability and sustainability.
Creating Inclusive Workplaces
Leaders can set the “tone at the top” to encourage companywide buy-in: Leaders—both company leaders and prominent thought leaders—can demonstrate publicly and consistently that they are committed to diversity and championing women’s representation, through adopting inclusive practices and promoting companywide policies that increase diversity. This work includes using clear goals and metrics by which companies and managers can measure progress, and practicing transparency both within the organization and publicly on how the company is progressing and the programs it is employing. Roundtable participants noted that having a champion, and not always a female one, is vital to progress: “[I think] it’s [also] important to have a champion. And I think it doesn’t have to be a woman. In fact, in some cases it needs to be a man because you need someone on the other side of that door to hold it open for you so you can walk through.”
Permanent progress requires structural change within companies: While company and thought leaders must kick-start needed conversations on diversity and inclusion and advance substantive programs facilitating change, sustained progress cannot rely on the work of individuals who may move roles or leave companies while work still needs to be done. Instead, organizational structures and procedures need to change permanently, through the introduction of clear, targeted, and transparent policies that establish guidance for behavior and business practices—and to which companies can be held to account, by their staffs and the public. Industry leaders participating in the roundtable all noted that action on gender diversity can also help cultivate an environment and advance broader initiatives inclusive of people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups.
Best practices can be replicated across companies, and at the state and national legislative level: Effective policies and laws that increase female representation—even if this was not their initial aim—already exist, and can be emulated or replicated, building off of hard work that has already been done. For example, two-thirds of countries in the world have passed legal prohibitions of workplace sexual harassment, a law that could be implemented at a national level in the remaining countries by using existing legal frameworks as templates. On a company level, national and international certification programs can be used as a starting point for companies seeking to diversify—EDGE certification, for example, can only be awarded if a company achieves certain metrics such as pay equity. In addition, practices such as blind resume-screening and diverse hiring panels have been shown in studies and in practice to lead to greater diversity in hiring, particularly in typically homogenous industries.
Companies can look inward to identify the unique barriers and challenges that women face within the specific environment, to find the most effective solutions possible: Despite the existence of replicable best practices, every organization is unique, and women and other underrepresented groups working within them unique to their respective workplaces. Effective change will require a dispassionate, potentially third-party, audit of these challenges and the creation of policies that specifically address them. One way for companies to go about this, which was highlighted in the Women as Levers of Change report, is to bring in external organizations to identify barriers and solutions, such as consultants to identify barriers to pay equity, who can then identify and recommend paths to parity.
Connecting Female Professionals
Employees can create “buzz at the bottom” by organizing to promote change: Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), unions, and working groups are all tools for employees committed to diversity and inclusion to identify company and industry-specific challenges and recommend explicit changes across the organization. While the roundtable was a convening of women in senior leadership positions, the Women as Levers of Change report profiles several women who created change and implemented new business practices from middle management and lower positions, including a woman who created a mentorship program for female professionals in her multinational corporation in which women are paired with senior leaders for shadowing and mentorship, and have access to leadership training and professional development opportunities.
Supporting Female Entrepreneurs
Companies can influence change along the entire supply chain: Companies committed to diversity and inclusion can influence their suppliers, vendors, and partners to adopt similar practices and require that entities along their supply chains demonstrate and verify actions taken to that end. Organizations can also make it a policy to prioritize working with women-owned businesses or companies that emphasize diversity and inclusion. Investors are also playing an essential role by adopting gender-lens investment practices and prioritizing investment in businesses that are demonstrating and verifying their commitments to diversity and inclusion. As one participant and pioneer of gender-lens investing noted, as more people come to understand “that gender diversity is material to long-term performance, investors are going to hold companies accountable” to achieving greater diversity and tracking their progress transparently.
Roundtable Insights Reinforce FP Analytics’ 2020 Findings
The experiences and insights shared in the roundtable echo the findings outlined in FP Analytics’ Women as Levers of Change study, which sought to understand the role of gender diversity in facilitating and accelerating positive change in the private sector, specifically in male-dominated legacy industries. Recognizing a gap in the existing research on female representation and diversity in the workplace, the report focused on how women can and do act as changemakers in the workplace, and identified what steps can be taken to increase both their presence and their ability to act. The study, which was produced with support from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, was based on data analysis of 2,300 publicly listed companies across 14 traditionally male-dominated legacy industries that have operations around the globe and significant impacts on health, environmental, and social outcomes, and which are facing increasing pressure from regulators and governments, consumers, and their employees to become more inclusive, diverse, and sustainable. The data analysis was combined with insights from interviews with more than 160 women from across the world, working at all levels of employment and leadership, in positions ranging from hands-on factory work to top-level financial planning. On average, in 2018, women represented just 21% of employees in these industries, 18% of executive management, and only 13% of executive board members—demonstrating the pervasive gender gap throughout the employment pipeline.
However, while still severely underrepresented throughout the employment pipeline, women—where they are present—are having transformational impacts. Through in-depth qualitative and quantitative analysis, the Women as Levers of Change study, found that greater representation of women was correlated with higher profitability, more transparency, greater social responsibility, and better environmental outcomes. Specifically:
- Companies in the top quartile for female representation in management were, on average, 47% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile.
- Companies in the top quartile for female representation on boards were an average of 32% more transparent than those in the bottom quartile.
- Companies in the top quartile for female representation on boards had a rating of social responsibility performance that was 74% higher than those in the bottom quartile.
- Companies that increased their representation of women on boards over five years significantly improved their environmental performance, reducing their energy consumption by 60%, their greenhouse gas emissions by 39% and their water use by 46%.
These findings made a clear business case for male-dominated industries to take steps to hire, support, and promote women in greater numbers. At the same time, the report also found that, across the legacy industries, women face a similar set of barriers to their recognition and advancement, which lead to retention problems and a greater rate of attrition among women than men. In particular, interviewees and relevant research cited the challenge of navigating hostile corporate cultures, and difficulties balancing professional responsibilities with personal ones such as elder care and child care. Pinpointing explicit barriers, the Women as Levers of Change report also highlights concrete actions that different stakeholders—including governments, businesses, and industry associations—can take to increase the number of women in male-dominated industries, their experience, and contributions in the workplace.
Across industries, women have long been calling for greater action by their companies and their peers to increase the gender diversity of male-dominated legacy industries, and to create inclusive working environments that nurture female talent. Increasingly, companies are recognizing that enhancing diversity and inclusion is not only the right thing to do, but a business imperative. Many organizations have reached out to us asking “how?” The Women as Levers of Change report and the recent roundtable highlight concrete actions that companies and other stakeholders can take now to advance these collective goals and demonstrate their leadership to their respective employees, constituents, and the public. It is the hope of FP Analytics, and all the participants in recent research, that these recommendations and resources will be vital tools in this ongoing work.
FP Analytics would like to express our gratitude to all those who participated in the Roundtable and our broader research. Specifically, we would like to thank:
– Adiki Ofeibea Aytevie, Regional Vice President – Sustainability & External Relations, Newmont Ghana Gold Ltd
– Bobbi Wells, Vice President of Safety & Airworthiness, FedEx Express
– Caren Grown, Global Group Director on Gender, The World Bank
– Derek Yach, President, Foundation for a Smoke-Free World
– Jackie VanderBrug, Head of Sustainable & Impact Investment Strategy Global Wealth and Investment Management, Bank of America
– Katie Mehnert, CEO & Founder at ALLY Energy
– Maryanne McGowan, Manager, Business Strategy & Implementation at Duke Energy
– Nadine de Coteau, Strategic Partnerships, Environment and Social Initiatives, Apple
– Patricia I. Kovacevic, Esq., Global Legal and Regulatory Strategist, Foundation for a Smoke-Free World
– Sandra Evers-Manly, Vice President, Global Corporate Responsibility, Northrop Grumman
– Steffanie Easter, Vice President and Planning, Defense Systems Group, SAIC
Thank you all for your candor, leadership, and ongoing efforts to enhance gender equity and inclusion across industries and around the world.