Monday, February 8, 2010

Down with Womenwashing!

Diversity .. gender equality ... advancing women in business. Anyone who has ever heard the words Corporate Social Responsibility and/or Sustainability knows that advancing women in business is a both moral obligation in the context of upholding of human rights, and a major business opportunity because, let's face it, many women are good leaders, good managers, good communicators, good listeners and good assets in any business. Note that I say many, because I wouldn't want to over-generalize. Note that I say good and not better (than men) , because I believe that an ideal world is one of equality where both men and women work in harmony, both genders bringing to the table their unique and intelligent perspectives. So why, after so many years of gender equality discussions, policies, plans, actions and efforts, are women still not making it to a decent level of representation in the general workforce of Companies, and far fewer to the Board Rooms and Executive teams? I would like to share a perspective.

I will not throw all the data at you. There are enormous amounts of data about women and how they don't achieve their rightful place in our economic landscape. You only need to take a quick glance at the Millenium Goals progress data , or at the Catalyst website, or spend a few fascinating hours reading the best and most authoritative book on the subject Why Women Mean  Business, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland, or visit Aviva's website, to get the general picture. 

This is not to say that Companies are not doing their part to advance women. Take a look at the United Nations Global Compact website to see a toolkit of resources including a document full of all the great things that Companies around the world are doing to advance women. This is truly wonderful. However, as I am known to repeat certain mantras from time to time, I will do so again. Doing things is great, but only if they result in tangible outcomes. We can all keep busy doing wonderful things to advance women, but if women are not advancing, then apparently what we are doing is not all that wonderful.

Another element in the efforts to improve actions and accountability in this area is the transparent reporting of gender equality data in Sustainability Reports. In fact, a few months ago the GRI issued a whole supplement to the G3 Reporting Framework called Embedding Gender in Sustainability Reporting which provides very precise guidelines about what Companies should disclose related to gender equality. The guide refers to gender issues in governance, workplace, supply chain, community and in investment decisions. This is very comprehensive and requires disclosure of how much both genders are paid, trained, developed, whether they take maternity or paternity leave, use child-care arangements and more. All things which theoretically apply to both genders but actually apply primarily  to women. However, there is one big gap in this transparency disclosure requirement:

Companies are not asked to report:
  • Does the Company employ a MALE gender equality officer?
  • How many MEN have been trained in gender equality?
  • How many MEN have actively recruited and promoted women?
  • How many MEN have demanded that their teams are gender equal?
Why  is this important ? Because all the gender programs that are currently running in companies to "fix" the women problems are not working. All these fixes, which the GRI now guides us to be transparent about, are there to try to solve the practical predicaments  of women's access to work (free them up - provide childcare, make them more competent - train them, give them help - mentor them, make then feel part of the group - network them, deal with them fairly - pay them the same as men, give them career opportunity -  return them to work gradually after maternity leave, understand them - give them a place to breastfeed) , when the real problems are atttudes which prevent  true  eye-ball to eye-ball equality wherever the important decisions are made in the business. This is not happening. And all the programs to fix women are not fixing women's advancement in the workplace.

We did a study of 100 (randomly selected) Sustainability Reports to see what Companies are doing and what result this is having. Here is some of what we found:

Less than 30% of the total workforce in the Companies analysed are women and less than 10% are Board Members or senior Executives. The research shows that there are 305 separate initiatives in 82 out of the total 100 Companies to advance women, yet in those Companies where there are greater initiatives, there does not appear to be a significantly greater or higher quality representation of women.

There is no noticeable difference in the research findings relative to Company size or country of operation. We do see, however, a very slight increase in women Board members and Executives where Companies have a higher level of focused initiatives to advance women and gender equality. However, this is still minimal and the data is not strong enough to support a clear conclusion in this respect.

Automotive, Construction, Energy and Mining sectors employ the lowest percentages of women and promote women least. No specific sector stands out as employing and promoting a high percentage of women across all organizational levels.

Finally, the level of disclosure is positive as regards absolute numbers of women in the business. 99 out of 100 Companies disclose total workforce numbers, and 84 disclose percentage of women in the workforce, 96 disclose percentage of women on the Board, and 91 disclose percentage of women at Executive level. However, what constitutes Executive level may not be comparable across Companies. The actual data is this:

28%  of total employees are women
(992, 234 women out of 3,541,930 total employees in 84 Companies that disclosed numbers)
9.8% of total Board Members are women
(113 women out of 1,151 total employees in 96 Companies that disclosed numbers)
8.9% of top Executives are women
(87 women out of 981 total employees in 91 Companies that disclosed numbers)

The main ways of promoting equality are making an equality or non-discrimination policy declaration, managing diversity against specific targets, diversity training and flexible working hours.

The Company in our sample with the highest level of total female employees is a Swedish plastics Company called Nolato, employing over 4,500 people, with 70% of the workforce who are women. This figure is influenced by the high level of employees in their operations in China. In Europe, 35% of the total workforce are women.   Nolato has only 20% female representation at Board level and ZERO representation at Executive level. Nolato does not report any focused gender equality initiatives beyond a declaration of  non-discrimination. There are just 4 sentences on diversity and equality in Nolato's 84 page report, one of which states with regard to the principles of non-discrimination and equality " There is nothing to suggest that we breached these principles in 2008". All the non-female executives in this Company probably do believe that to be  true.

The second Company with the highest level of total female employees is Cathay Pacific Airlines with 60% of women on their workforce, 6% of women on the Board and 12.5% women executives. Cathay has over 27,000 employees worldwide. As with Nolato, Cathay does not report any measures to advance women in business. And, they don't advance.

Finally, one more example, BASF. BASF employs over 96,000 people, they have 22% of women in the workforce, zero on the Board and 5.7% female executives. They have in place 5 intiatives to support gender equality, and women specifically. This includes project teams promoting diversity, and a range of initiatives under the work-life balance banner, including child care, and provisions for employees returning from parenthood! BASF say "We are committed to the equal treatment of both men and women".  I suppose some are more equal than others when it comes to handing out promotions.

Finally, I think it is about time that Companies stopped womenwashing in their reporting and stopped playing around with childcare programs as a demonstration that they are advancing women. Sure, it help to have this sort of support, but it is not enough to make the difference. As Avivah Wittenberg-Cox says: It is time for CEO's to get serious about sex. 

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm. Visit our website at:   


Julien said...

Great article Elaine! I shared it with friends and colleagues and had good feedbacks.

Andrea Learned said...

Elaine - you knew you'd draw me in with this post! There's a key word within that symbolizes what is wrong/why it is so hard for corporations to "get" this gender diversity thing.. and that is the word "initiative." That word makes it sound like an aside, a little test project. Just like sustainability and social responsibility, corporations will get nowhere if they simply put their figurative toes in the water. If gender diversity is a "men's initiative" or a "woman's initiative" or even a "gender initiative"... it will probably fail. How about integrating a whole new approach to managing an effective organization in the 21st century? Corporations SHOULD be taking a look at the gender diversity issue, but they too often get stuck there and don't apply what they learn more broadly. I wrote a Huffpo piece ( on new Catalyst research about engaging men in gender initiatives, and how that feels very similar to what we now struggle with in engaging conventional business thinkers in sustainability. Addressing either gender or "green" is but an element of what we are ALL pursuing as savvy business types: more effective and productive businesses for the long term (sustainable!). So, we have to learn to talk about these issues, and work on them, with "appreciative inquiry" type methods. No polarization of men vs. women or green vs. not-green allowed.

elaine said...

Julien - thank you!
Andrea - yes, I thought you might take note of this post! Thank you for contributing very good thoughts. I agree with you that Appreciative Enquiry et al is the right way forward. But before a business can do that with its management, we need to see true leadership commitment to gender equality. The inneffective "initiatives" fail mainly because there is no leadership commitment. How on earth do you encourage women to advance in a Company where there is Board with Zero women and an Exec team with a token woman? Some "initiatives" may serve an interim purpose in building a new organisational reality which can set the stage for to a more in depth process (cf: now we promoted 5 women, lets talk about what we all need to do to create an environment in which everyone can succeed together) , but this can happen only if the leadership is openly and visibly serious about it. The sad fact is that leadership just doesnt get it.

Andrea Learned said...

Identifying the male influencers and working it from that angle seems to be the way, Elaine. The Catalyst research is very helpful:

For one - just take a look at the men they profiled therein. Perhaps those case studies, from very recognized and successful companies, could convince the laggards to get on it! Glad you are on the case, as well!

Unknown said...

Elaine, thank you for posting this.

I was invited to a private meeting of 200+ female leaders in investments in 2003 or 4, most of whom were alumnae of a Top 10 MBA program in the Boston Area. I was not permitted to report on the presentations there from individuals.

What I can say is across the board is that most women who presented left Fortune 2000 to recover a life with family usually after a significant episode of a chronic or life threatening illness.

One woman, who achieved Chairperson level in her investment firm talked about how this cost her relationship with her husband who became an ex and all her children.

For most of my career I have been quite and not directed myself to speak up as I want to.

Ironically last night I watched a television episode of HOUSE where the female lead who plays a medical director of a small teaching hospital best in practice in ER and diagnosing systemic illnesses was "battered" by an insurance group and chose to took a stand and won in the end.

She was called Bitch and was told that her contact had told his boss she would not budge.

During the negotiation she had to take a stand when her job was threatened and take disrespect from the hospital medical staff plus.

I believe in CSR dealing with these issues has to begin with us.

I have a health care background and watched the episode last night play out to show the stress this woman faced in the script which I could relate to and have been through.

This women stuck to her ethic and what was right in the script based on an ethical financial analysis whereby the insurance group operated in the negotiation based on greed and profit and domination.

I was left speechless at the end of the episode seeing myself in similar situations during my career and left to wonder why do women have to get sick from stress, back out of their career and networks to recover and cannot show and perform in a context of an ethic that is mindful and the best of CSR practice.

This month a former professor of mine, who is a woman and well known in CSR work, sent me work of hers that validates my work. 10 years ago this woman accompanied me to an interview with someone male of CSR fame and told this man to hire me so I could do my grad work within his research center and create a reputation for myself. This man has recently stepped down frm his leadership role and this week, I got an email from my professor with materials that validate my research that was not supported during my academic experience.

For me and my career male domination has run in parallel with institutional domination and politics.

I believe for us to change what is happening for women we have to act and be who we are and stand behind each other in the practice of how we work and make this happen.

In the CSR community I have been shamed and humiliated by men in our practice and I don't put up with it; Recently I was told how to behave in a public space in a way that in text print could be viewed as humiliation. I took it up in email off the public platform and simple made it clear that I would never talk to anyone that way.

Thank you for creating this blog entry and a space in which the conversation can happen. We need to take that stand not as a protest, but as a step toward assuring and pointing out the remarkable work women in our community are responsible for where they can be noted and recognized as leaders.

elaine said...

hi Lavinia, thank you for your insights. I am sure every successful woman has similar stories of open or subtle discrinimatory or humiliating behaviour. I agree that another aspect of this is how women stand together and support each other. I would like to see more female leaders walk this talk.
thanks for reading and commenting!

Unknown said...

Elaine, let's do it! I could write a lengthy response here, and I am happy to create a category within my blog for you and other successful women in CSR to contribute to speaking to how metrics that are gender balanced can alter the CSR or Sustainability space and lead change.

My work is core to translating the Earth Charter Precautionary Principle which is the DNA of WorkEcology(tm)

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, physician, global public health leader, prime minister and leader of the Brundtland Commission as a woman has created a remarkable foundation for women like you and I to lead into.

You can read more about her, and all this at my blog, by searching on the Brundtland Commission and Precautionary Principle.

I will add a column in my blog featuring this blog post in the next few days, after I complete a project proposal. I hope you and other women thought leaders from Justmeans, will contribute to this category.

I will also try to think of a new title rather than Gender. I am a contributor to the Power of Yin column on Ethical but think it may be time to add this as a category at my blog and ask Ethical to feature anything written there by me or guest writers.


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