6 Steps Corporate America Must Take To Achieve Gender Parity

RaffertyAs seen in Forbes

Thousands of articles, research papers, leaders, and experts have attempted to tackle the issue of corporate America’s serious lack of equal or near-equal representation of women at senior leadership levels. Yet effective solutions remain untapped for many thousands of organizations here in the U.S.

I remember sitting on the phone earlier this year with three HR heads (each in a different country) of a large, multinational information services organization, as they were exploring hiring me to offer leadership training to their female workforce.  Before we went any further, I asked, “Where in the pipeline are your emerging female leaders falling out, and why is it happening?” and there was dead silence on the phone.

No one, even at these top levels, knew the answer, and the organization had no plans to find out.  Discouraging to say the least. Leadership coaches and trainers like myself know that throwing a leadership training program “over the fence” to women isn’t going to move any needle if the organization isn’t seriously and continuously engaged in and committed to business and HR strategies that support more women to leadership.

There are certainly no simple answers or quick fixes for this challenge. It is complex and multi-faceted, touching on cultural, neurobiological, societal and gender role factors.  Easy or not, we need to continue our search for manageable, measurable and executable approaches that will open the pathway for equal representation of women at the top of both political and business affairs in our country (and world).

To explore this issue from a fresh perspective, I was excited to catch up with Ms. Barri Rafferty, North American CEO of Ketchum Inc. – one of the largest and most geographically diverse PR agencies in the world.  A member of the sustainability taskforce of the World Economic Forum, Barri is the first female North American CEO in Ketchum’s 90-year history, and one of the highest ranking female executives within the holding company Omnicom (NYSC: OMC), which netted revenues upwards of $14.6 billion in 2013. In her current role, Barri leads Ketchum’s nine offices in North America as well as Ketchum Digital and Ketchum Sports and Entertainment.

Here’s what Barri had to say about critical steps toward gender parity in corporate America:

Barri Rafferty:  “You’ve got to see it to be it,” is a memorable line from Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s seminal film MissRepresentation, in referring to the need for positive female role models in the media – and this absolutely translates into the corridors of power. The good news is that more women are sitting at top seats in business today, and visibly so. The bad? Numbers don’t lie; we have a long way to go before achieving gender parity in Corporate America.

As a rarefied female CEO, I know this all too well, yet it took my being invited to the World Economic Forum for me to stop and think about the issue. It was eye opening. With women delegates representing less than 15% at the meeting, I realized there is a lot of work to be done to reach equality in business, and that is why I helped found the Women’s Leadership Network at my company, Ketchum.

As a leading global public relations firm, we know that actions speak louder than words or as my boss says: “A brand is what a brand does.”

Kathy Caprino: So, Barri, what can corporate America, and we as individuals, do to effectively address this issue?

Rafferty: We can take these six steps:

1. Study the studies; create and communicate a case.

Gender parity is a highly complex issue, but advances in psychology, neurology, and areas like human capital, along with intensified media scrutiny on the subject, are reasons to be optimistic. Also, we all know the bottom line is king, and a recent study by Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors attained significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest representation of women board directors. In short, gender diversity leads to more successful businesses. Yet boardrooms still need convincing. Integrating all that we now know into a compelling case, communicated creatively and effectively is a good first step towards getting leaders engaged.

2. Invest in confidence acquisition.

In their book, “The Confidence Code,” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explain how women disproportionately lack confidence, compared to men, and that female perfectionist tendencies are much to blame. For example, a HP study (referenced in The Economist) found women need to feel 100% qualified before they apply for a job promotion versus 60% for men. Encouraging and inviting women to take risks, stretch themselves and apply to new roles is key. Demonstrate confidence in them and in turn companies will see the return.

3. Check your language.

Vital to building confidence in women is the need to eradicate seemingly innocuous, but ultimately insidious, gender biased messaging permeating our culture. Recent marketing campaigns have tapped into this, challenging women and men to rethink, and even ban, subversive terms such as “like a girl” and “bossy.” Pantene’s #shinestrong (*client) asks: “Why are women always apologizing?” I can relate. For instance, in brainstorms rather than confidently shouting out an idea, I’ve seen women couch an amazing idea with, “this may not be a good idea, but…”  and then a male follows boldly with the same idea and he gets the credit. Being aware of language and its reflection on us as leaders is critical to advancement.

4. Make men part of the journey.

A Harvard Business School study of C-suite executives showed that 60% of the males have spouses who don’t work full-time outside the home, compared with only 10% of the women. Could this be a source of bias when it comes to envisioning women, and especially moms, in leadership roles? Training for men to respect female leadership traits, asking women if they are willing to take on broader roles, such as P&L responsibilities or transferring across departments, and not taking them out of the running by assuming they would turn it down due to having young children or other personal commitments, and building at least one female candidate into leadership succession planning is a start.

5. Develop workplace support.

As it currently stands, women take on the majority of household, childcare and parent care roles, saddling them with a deep sense of responsibility and imposing a massive tax on their time. Providing support resources and networks at work are crucial to career success. Savvy companies need to consider ways to materially help women identify and access quality support. Programs addressing flexible schedules, childcare support, maternal leave and thoughtful career re-entry could support women, and men, throughout their careers giving them the resources needed to succeed in the modern workplace.

6. Set measurable goals.

The countries with the most success in achieving corporate gender parity have set quotas. Although I am not a believer in quotas, I do believe companies need to address this issue head on, making a commitment to pay equality, gender balance at all corporate levels, recruiting incentives for diversity, sponsorship programs and strategic succession planning. To be effective, the edict to eliminate bias and shift the paradigm needs to be led from the top of an organization where men primarily sit today.

It’s a fact that women leaders are performing far better than men on almost every one of the key attributes identified as being the most critical to effective leadership, according to the third annual Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor, a global study on effective leadership and communication. So I challenge current and future women leaders – don’t give in to the age old assumption that women need to act like “old school” male leaders to make their mark. We inherently have the tools to succeed and close this gap. We just need to embrace opportunity, exude confidence, and take some critical risks to make it happen. Let’s do this.