A question dominated discussions ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8: How can we make it count?
Gender equality and empowerment are principles that have been widely adopted for some time; but for many women, particularly those in developing countries, action lags way behind the rhetoric. The same is true in business: Evidence abounds for the business case for investing in women, but the reality remains that for a lot of women, things at work haven’t progressed much beyond what their mothers experienced.
It makes sense then that the issues that came up time and again during a panel I participated in at the sixth annual meeting of the UN's Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs) titled “Jobs, Gender and Development: Confronting the Global Challenge," mainly related to the enduring challenges women face at work. I had gone there thinking I had much to add to that topic, but I came away having learned more than I could share, about topics I hadn’t expected.
I had planned to talk about the “world out there” and the improvements we help our clients achieve. I wanted to touch on the issue of getting more financing to women entrepreneurs (the $300 billion credit gap identified by McKinsey) and IFC’s practical experience working with clients to apply a gender prism to their workplaces to access more talent, improve attendance, and retain female workers. I had gone in thinking to share insights from a global perspective, but I was reminded that the conversation has to start at home—that it must be about our own organizations and how we choose to manage gender-related concerns.
Participants wanted to understand more deeply why women get overlooked for promotion, why some organizations still tolerate male-only selection panels, and why taking maternity leave still means almost certain demotion for most women. The key question for panelists like me was: If the evidence for a business case for investing in women is there, then why is gender inclusion proving so difficult?
The answer gets labeled today as biased social norms.
Panelist Nathalie Malige, CEO of Diverseo, a firm of “Cognitive Bias Advisors,” told us about breakthroughs in “mind sciences” and their emerging role in business performance. If you've read Daniel Kahneman's excellent Thinking, Fast and Slow, you'll recognize the approach. If you haven’t, know that the author performed psychological and economic research into how people make decisions or come to conclusions—which are informed by the kinds of prejudices and cultural baggage we bring to our choices.
Stephen Fitzgerald, also a panelist whose topic was “Breaking Stereotypes, Expanding Opportunities,” serves on the Board of Guardians the Future Fund, an Australian sovereign wealth fund. He explained how Australia has established a Male Champions of Change, which is focused on practical steps to dismantle gender-based barriers in members’ own organizations and more broadly. Fitzgerald talked about "disrupting the status quo," while keeping focused on the prize that will follow from the full participation of women in Australia’s economy: an estimated 11% uplift in Australia's GDP. Male Champions of Change also includes the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chief of the Army, David Morrison. (By the way, Morrison's video about what is acceptable behavior within the Australian army has had more than a million hits on YouTube; if you take three minutes to watch it, you'll understand why.)
WEP Leadership Award winner Joe Keefe, President and Chief Executive Officer of Pax World Management and Pax World Funds–which support the full integration of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors into investment analysis and decision making—asserted that gender inequality is "the defining civil rights issue of our time," and that "by advancing the business case, we can advance the moral case."
Finally, speaking from the audience, Idil Turkmenoglu—head of HR for Turkey-based Halkla Iliskiler—urged us all: "Just start with a simple, big idea and all the steps will follow."
So as we celebrate International Women's Day, the big, simple idea for my employer, IFC, should be: keep working with our clients on addressing gender-based constraints in their workplaces, but let's make sure we are just as systematic in addressing them in our own.