The financial world thrives early in the morning – at 8 am everybody has been active for quite some time when our team arrived in the beautiful building of Borsa Italiana (the Italian Stock Exchange). It’s the 8th of March, the “International Women Day”, and we were here to speak at the “Ring the bell for Gender Equality”, an event held across 65 stock exchanges across the world to raise awareness of the pivotal role the private sector can play in advancing gender equality.
Being at the conference for the first time, I didn’t know much about what to expect and, despite my commitment to the cause, I quickly realised I had a limited understanding of what Gender Equality means for the business world in 2019 and why it is more important than ever to have this discussion in the business community.
For this reason, I tried to elaborate on key findings and misconceptions addressed during the conference, with the aim to help you assess your understanding and perception of the business status quo and navigate the gender equality issue in your company or in your team.
GENDER EQUALITY IS NOT A WOMEN’S ISSUE
Men and companies at large do have a significant stake in gender equality. The public and business conversation too often revolves around women’s “shortcomings”, how women should behave, participate and contribute. Presenting and addressing the issue as solely “women-sided” is not fair and neither is it helpful for any stakeholder because it does not account for the wasted talent and missed opportunities as a result of gender inequality. A company where employees are treated differently and are given different opportunities based on their gender is, in the end, unmeritocratic and untrustworthy.
GENDER EQUALITY IS ACTUALLY ABOUT DIVERSITY
For companies which want to fully benefit from an inclusive approach, focusing solely on gender discrimination means not taking a holistic approach and missing out on a significant part of the potential. For private companies, gender equality is, in fact, the starting point for diversity, which includes a lot of other aspects e.g. ethnicity, disability, religion, socio-economic backgrounds, sexuality, etc.
Addressing the diversity issue at large means taking a more systemic approach to not only find new talent and skills, but also to improve relationships with customers, suppliers, shareholders, and other stakeholders in multicultural and global markets.
GENDER EQUALITY IS NOT ABOUT COUNTING WOMEN IN THE ROOM
“I often have conversations with companies and non-profits about gender equality, and the first thing that people always say is, – Oh, we are working to recruit more women onto our Board – Or – we already have 50% of women on our Board – It often ends there”; remarked Bonnie during her “Ring the Bell for Gender Equality” speech.
Gender equality is not simply about counting the number of women involved at each level, but it is about making women count, empowering their role within the company and removing silent obstacles which routinely prevents them from having the same chances as their male counterparts. (see Pew Research Center analysis https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/01/14/chapter-3-obstacles-to-female-leadership/)
GENDER EQUALITY IS ABOUT UNTAPPING WOMEN POTENTIAL IN EVERY STAKEHOLDER ROLE
The role of the private sector in gender equality does not end with workforce participation; companies have the power and leverage to influence this issue on a multistakeholder level. From designing products and services to be more inclusive (es: https://coolhunting.com/design/volvo-inclusive-safety-developments/), to untapping women potential as customers (es: http://www.ke.undp.org/content/kenya/en/home/operations/projects/inclusiveeconomicgrowth/promoting-women-business-investment.html) to a supplier perspective which demands accountability throughout the supply chain; each company has the potential to affect the gender equality agenda in its value chain.
GENDER EQUALITY IS ABOUT RIGOROUS EVIDENCE, NOT ANECDOTES
“There are many examples of initiatives to learn and champions to hear from; but we need to move from anecdotes to rigorous evidence. It is only with rigorous evidence that we will truly prove a business case for gender equality. Otherwise, we risk taking two steps forward, one step – or even two steps back.” warned Bonnie on the 8th of March. Other speakers followed on the same line of thought. Measuring rigorous evidence and not stopping to feel good stories and successful anecdotes is key to prove the so called “business case for gender equality” and scale proven solutions to a mainstream level (es: https://www.sodexo.com/files/live/sites/sdxcom-global/files/PDF/Media/2018_Gender-Balance-Study_EN.pdf).
GENDER EQUALITY IS NOT ABOUT EQUAL TREATMENT, IT’S ABOUT EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES
It might happen that the gender equality narrative is pictured as seeking identical treatment of women and men, yet this is far from the truth. Gender equality, in fact, is not about the convergence of women and men, but rather about ensuring people rights and opportunities do not depend on whether you are born male or female; respecting different behaviors and defending different needs. This approach, as described by UNESCO, “may include equal treatment or treatment that is different but which is considered equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations, and opportunities”
GENDER EQUALITY BUSINESS CASE IS VERY MUCH STILL NECESSARY TO ADVOCATED
“Do we really still have to bring a business case on the table to promote gender equality in 2019? Probably yes, we do…” concluded one of the speakers at the conference. Proving a business return on these actions is key to move decision makers and budgets.
The World Economic Forum stated that it will take up to 202 years to close the gender pay gap (https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-gender-gap-report-2018), so yes, I do think we need to speed up the overall process and that companies working to build a strong business case for gender equality could be decisive for the success of the cause.