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CEOs: It’s Time To Step Up And Lead On Gender Equality

Real change requires courageous commitment from top-level leaders.
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By Sarah Alter, president and CEO, Network of Executive Women

You’ve seen them throughout corporate America ― maybe even in your own company.

The road to gender equality is littered with failed standalone efforts that check “the gender equality box” — workplace initiatives like diversity workshops or employee resource groups filled only with women. While these efforts may raise awareness of the career barriers women face, they rarely move the needle on gender parity or generate lasting change.

At the Network of Executive Women, we believe in a “top down, bottom up” approach that emphasizes leadership development and opportunity for women, and — perhaps more important — the commitment of C-suite leaders who will drive policies, programs and a corporate culture that support women’s leadership.

CEOs and other senior leaders who want to change their organizations and achieve gender equality need to arm themselves with insights and action plans that will transform a gender-biased company into a business that leverages all of its talent in a workplace where all can succeed. Potent when applied together, these strategies will fall short if cherry-picked.

Make gender equality a business goal.

CEOs need to commit their full-fledged support to women’s leadership and mandate company policies that advance gender equality and pay equity. Unless gender equality and inclusion are placed high on the corporate agenda and included as routine topics of C-suite conversation, initiatives will stall. Establish companywide goals and targets by function and business, and tie them to business plans and executive incentives.

Create an open, inclusive culture.

To close gaps between policy intent and actual practice, C-suite leaders must walk the talk and practice conscious inclusion. Modeling gender-inclusive behavior — such as mentoring and sponsoring high-potential women — is a start, but modeling inclusion each day and inviting both men and women into “the room where it happens” has a powerful, lasting effect. Rather than focusing solely on negative, unconscious bias, actively reinforce and value inclusive behavior.

And, it still needs to be said: It’s time for zero tolerance for hostile workplaces. Equality can’t exist in a space where sexual harassment or innuendo is allowed.

Uphold gender-neutral policies that are fair and flexible.

CEOs must direct and foster family-friendly policies that enable gender-equal career paths. Do your development and promotion policies impact men and women differently or hinder your gender-parity goals?

Nearly 30 percent of full-time working parents in the United States surveyed by Ernst & Young said managing work and personal responsibilities is getting more difficult. Do your workplace practices provide flexibility that men and women need for family and other responsibilities?

At the same time, millennials place greater importance on work/life balance than their parents did. Among the top reasons millennials quit their jobs: excessive overtime hours (71 percent of those E&Y surveyed) and a boss that doesn’t allow them to work flexibly (69 percent).

Push for equal pay inside your company and influence your business partners.

Start with an equal pay analysis by job title and make adjustments. Does your merit pay program support equal pay? Do your maternity or disability leave policies inhibit hourly wage or salary increases? Is gender pay equality a consideration in the companies you do business with?

Ensure open access to all jobs.

One huge career hurdle for women is the lack of work experience that would position them for advancement to leadership roles. What percentage of your P&L roles are filled by women? One way to build more opportunities for P&L experience is to create channel- or project-based P&Ls.

Does your talent management system support a diverse slate of candidates for gender-neutral roles? How strong are your on-ramping and off-ramping programs?

Women should have the same opportunities for stretch assignments, career development programs, mentoring and sponsorship presented to men. Relocation is more difficult for women executives, who are more likely to be primary caregivers or in dual-career households. Offering women a global project, rather than a global position, is one way to make career-advancing positions more accessible.

In short, do women at your company have clear career paths? Bring men into the gender equality conversation and root out career barriers for women.

Be transparent and share talent data.

Share company policies and plans for promoting gender equality with the public. Remember, what gets measured gets attention ― and resources. Establish benchmarks that quantify the inclusion of women at all levels ― such as percent of women versus men in hiring, total employees, promotions and attrition — and share your progress internally and externally.

Top executives’ strong, vocal and consistent commitment to gender equality will help talented women achieve their best ― and help your company achieve the bottom-line results closely tied to women’s leadership.

Sarah Alter is among the signatories of the CEO Action, a pledge to advance workplace diversity and inclusion that was spearheaded by PwC U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan.

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