Today we observe International Women’s Day. This day has been set aside each year since 1911 to acknowledge the achievements of women, and to highlight calls to action to accelerate gender parity.
I always have mixed feelings about this day. It’s great to celebrate the wins and call attention to the work that still needs to be done. At the same time, I worry that after the celebration is over, we go right back to business as usual, neglecting the hard work that has to be done by each of us every day, in whatever capacity we can.
For me, that capacity has been in my role as a senior executive in the payments industry, where I’ve both led and participated in a number of corporate and industry initiatives to help women advance into leadership roles. I love the payments industry because it’s so dynamic. And, it can also be a tough industry for women, because it tends to attract people with background in engineering and finance—fields where women are still a small minority.
In fact, the catalyzing moment for me to begin this work was when, a decade and a half into a career marked by a series of groundbreaking, “first-woman-ever” roles, I took a job at a bank and found myself the only woman in the room—again. I suddenly thought, "I can't believe I've been doing this for years and this is still happening. How has this not changed yet?"
I didn’t want younger women in this industry to have to grow up being the only woman in the room. I made up my mind to create a women’s group at the bank. I felt that being a senior leader, I had paid my dues and was in a position to do that. But it felt a little risky. I didn’t want to be perceived as spending company time organizing a pet project. I didn't think I would get fired for it (and I didn’t) but it did cross my mind, along with the thought that I had achieved the financial comfort level to be able do things that are maybe a little dangerous.
Nearly a decade later, I think we’ve made some progress. I think it also sometimes still feels too risky and difficult even for senior women to speak up for themselves and challenge the status quo—even in companies that sincerely want to promote gender parity. Here are seven things I think companies can do to make that easier:
1. Support affinity groups
When you’re in the minority, it takes extra courage to speak up and express a point of view that differs from the majority. You feel isolated. You question your own experiences, and judgment. Companies don’t always realize how important it is for minority groups to have a support system.
When I first approached the CEO with the idea of creating a company women’s group, he said two things: “Why are you doing this,” and, "If you start a group for women, then everyone is going to want to have a group."
I said, "Great. Everybody can have a group." I also showed him that many of our competitors and companies that we wanted to partner with had affinity groups, and he eventually came to understand that when you are trying to make this kind of change, there’s strength in numbers. I’m pleased to say that today, this company has many different affinity groups.
2. Get men on board
Some of the best advice I got as I was starting this group was to get men involved and get senior male sponsors on board. Not only did the CEO end up supporting our group, he became an ally. We always made it a point to invite the men in the company to attend, and the CEO ended up telling his male direct reports, "I'll be there, and I want to see you there." That was one secret to our success.
3. Support mentoring programs
I think women leaders have to be role models and mentors to other women. It's not easy because we have homes, spouses, children and activities outside of the home. Then we have our jobs. Mentoring is on top of all of that. It’s a lot easier if there’s a formal program and time at work for it--if it’s part of the job. And it should be, not just for women to mentor women, but also for men to mentor women.
I’m now starting to see men actively looking for those opportunities and embracing their roles as allies. Sometimes men they’ll say, "I have a daughter. This is why this is important for me." But I think if you have a son, it’s equally important.
4. Rethink social activities
A lot of business is done in social settings, and these settings aren’t always inclusive. At one of my earlier companies, every single time we had an event with customers, there was a golf day. At another company, every event, all over the world, was next to a golf course. That's where a lot of deals were made.
Half our customers were women, and most didn’t participate in golf day. So, we reserved a room at the hotel and had a spa day. It was fantastic for networking because we were all in the same place and you could talk to everyone, as opposed to golf where you're mostly talking with your foursome. And, a lot of men came and enjoyed it. Companies need to work harder to make sure social events have this kind of broad appeal.
5. Rethink your speakers
The same goes for conference speakers. At my last three companies, the keynote speaker for our big event has been a football coach or quarterback. That’s awesome; these guys can teach us something about teambuilding and leadership, but we need other perspectives as well. For example, we had former quarterback Archie Manning, Eli and Peyton Manning's dad, speak to us about how he raised two sons who were Super Bowl quarterbacks.
I said to my boss, "Why isn't his wife here? He didn’t raise these kids alone.” Let's make sure that all our keynote speakers don’t speak in sports metaphors.
6. Invest in girls
It’s well documented that girls tend to drop out of science and math tracks at a young age—and not for lack of ability. Companies that need people with these kinds of skills need to get involved with efforts to support girls who are interested in these fields. For example, Amazon supports Girls Who Code, a summer program for high school girls; Girls in Tech, a global non-profit that educates and empowers women with a passion for technology, and many other non-profits around the world that are focused on increasing diversity in technology roles.
Diversity and inclusion are not feel-good initiatives. These are initiatives can help grow the bottom line, so it's very important to put metrics in place. Companies need to incorporate this into peoples’ objectives.
Then, if somebody is spending time mentoring, or traveling to Washington, D.C. for the Women in Payments conference, that is not going to be looked upon as not doing their job because, in fact, they are doing their job. They're trying to accomplish this objective that was set for them. You not only give them permission to participate in affinity groups and mentoring programs and the like, but an incentive to do so. These objectives should obviously be for all leaders and managers, not just women.
Pay it forward
As a senior leader, I feel a great responsibility to pay it forward for all of the women coming up. I think it is important to be vocal about the kinds of changes we need to see, and not just on one day of the year. We are making inroads, but it's crazy that it's taken so long. We can accelerate change with support in the workplace, and support from men, and on that front, I have hope.
I have two sons who are feminists. One of them loves football but has stopped following the NFL because he's disgusted by their tolerance for domestic violence. It's taken away his enjoyment of the game, so he has switched over to the NBA.
The other one was asked by his employer to take a training on workplace safety. Part of the training said that when walking in the parking lot, women should not be dressed provocatively. He went to the HR office and complained that that was sexist and asked that it be taken out of the training. He called me to tell me that, and I couldn't be prouder.
As you consider some of the advice I’ve provided, I leave you with you two questions. Who are the women in your life? How can you empower them today?