The keys to shaping culture to foster gender equity

By Kellie McElhaney

Unfortunately, the American workplace has not been making significant progress towards gender and racial equity. According to Catalyst, there are currently only 23 women CEOs leading S&P 500 companies, which makes for 4.6 percent of the total. In addition, women hold just 26.5 percent of executive/senior level management positions in the S&P 500 and 36.9 percent of first/mid-level management positions. Data from Deloitte show that Caucasian women hold 18.3 percent of Fortune 100 board seats—not a particularly enviable number—while minority women hold only 4.6 percent of Fortune 100 board seats.

While most of us thought that women would be much closer to 50:50 parity with men in the workplace by now, we have stalled out. It’s become less clear that we will ever reach gender parity.

Diversity vs. inclusion

One of the big problems is that companies are focusing on diversity which is simply counting heads. They say, “Oh, we hired five more black women as coders last year,” but that’s a wholly insufficient component of gender equity. What’s even more important is inclusion, making those heads count. Most companies today aren’t looking at what’s really happening. Sure, they're hiring more underrepresented minority women (at a really slow pace, by the way), but these women are leaving at faster rates once they get in. Once hired, many aren’t feeling a sense of belonging within their organizations or that they are valued and that their opinions count.

So, what can be done?

It’s my belief that each of us can play a powerfully positive role in shaping the cultures of the organizations for which we work, persistently nudging them in the direction of gender equity while dismantling policy and organizational obstacles that stand in the way for women in the workplace. There are a variety of ways that women—and men—can accomplish this.

As leaders, we need to support one another in the workplace. Emilie Arel, CEO of Fullbeauty Brands and a Haas School alumna, firmly believes that we have to pay it forward and help those who work for us. She makes a point of regularly having coffee and lunch with her people. “Getting to know talent and helping people in their careers is part of your job as a leader. It’s very important that we as women think that way, and also that we encourage people who work with us and for us to say what they want.” says Emilie.

We all have a role to play

Men can and should play a key role in shaping culture in ways that promote gender equality. At Haas, we have what we call “manbassadors”—a program founded a few years ago by two 2nd-year MBA students. According to Patrick Ford, leadership coach, MBA 17, and one of the program’s founders, the goals of the organization are, “Getting individual men to educate themselves to become more aware of the reality of unconscious gender discrimination and of their own behavior, and bringing that awareness into the workplace to create a level playing field.” Imagine what an organization like this could do to shape the culture of your business.

Ultimately, women—and men—must speak up when they see things that aren’t right in their organizations. Too often, all of us have been guilty of letting sexist or racist comments slip by, or have seen sexual harassment happen. We fear the risk of retribution or don’t know exactly what to say or do to challenge it. We have to stand up and say, “That's not okay,” or, "Here's another way in which we might think about this.” I believe many men would welcome that consciousness-raising and feedback would use their power and voices as an advocate of change. Together we do have the power to shape our organization’s culture toward gender equity and away from the discriminatory practices of the past.

Learn more about the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership

Posted on September 20, 2018
Kellie McElhaney
Dr. Kellie McElhaney is on faculty as a Distinguished Teaching Fellow and the Founding Director of the Center for Gender, Equity and Leadership at Berkeley Haas. Launched in November, 2017, the center is focused on agitating, activating, and fiercely turning up the volume and velocity on diversity and inclusion leadership in the business leadership world. Berkeley Haas graduates over 1,000 leaders a year, and the center will ensure that Berkeley leaders are diversity fluent. It will also partner deeply with the powerbase that is the corporate sector. In 2003, Kellie founded the Haas School's Center for Responsible Business, solidifying corporate responsibility as a core competency and competitive advantage of the school. She has received the Founder and Visionary Award at Haas.