Women’s Leadership: Moral Obligation or Good Business Decision?
Earlier this month I made my way to the The New York Times building for Impact Leadership 21’s “Collaboration: Moving Forward Together,” summit and awards. Dreamed up by CEO Janet Salazar and Constance J. Peak (Chair of the Global Advisory Council) the event reframed the women’s leadership debate as a dialogue with men about how all of us can better support women’s leadership.
It was a fantastic day, full of rich conversation. A handful of moments stand out, and all seem to hover around this question: Do we support women and women’s leadership because it’s the right thing to do, or because it’s a good business decision?
Alyse Nelson of Vital Voices kicked off the day telling the story of how Vital Voices identifies, trains, and invests in emerging women leaders across the globe, emphasizing what is fast becoming a well-known fact—that when you invest in women, the whole community prospers. Check out some of the program’s leaders and projects here.
Next, Take The Lead’s Gloria Feldt (author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power) moderated a panel, “The Global Leadership Gap: How Women Can Rise Up to the Challenge” with five highly accomplished women business leaders at different stages of their careers, including Adele Gulfo (Pfizer), Kay Koplovitz (Springboard Enterprises), and Michaela Walsh (Women’s World Banking), among others. In a far ranging conversation on everything from the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, to venture capital, what women’s leadership looks like in other cultures, the importance of travel, to what to do when you realize you work for an organization that doesn’t support you (you can guess the answer)—I was most struck by Walsh’s words. Bringing decades of experience and perspective, Walsh spoke candidly about how important it is to have passion for one’s work. “Without passion, all that we want to accomplish for women won’t happen,” she said. “Women must embrace their power… Without women at the design table, the world isn’t going to change.”
Kay Koplovitz told her own powerful story of combined hard work and serendipity when it came to her career. If she hadn’t seen a poster about a talk on satellites while at the London School of Economics, she said, she would never have written her dissertation about satellite technology or gone on to build USA Networks. After leaving USA, Koplovitz focused her energy on getting women equal access to capital. In 1999, for example, she told us $104 billion went toward new businesses from venture capital funding in the United States; just 1.7% of that number went to women. So Koplovitz built Springboard Enterprises, which in its 13 years of existence has brought 537 women-owned companies to market, companies which then raised 6.2 billion dollars.
During “High Impact Success Story: How a Japanese Global Company Tripled Its Number of Women Directors, Achieved Breakthrough Revenue, and Overall Business Growth,” Anthony Marino (Chief HR Officer for Bank of Toyko Mitsubishi-UFJ) touched on all of these things, but most interestingly, spoke eloquently about the challenge of supporting women’s leadership within a traditional Japanese company, being tasked with actively supporting women, knowing not all of the company is behind you or agrees that such a goal is important.
Marino cited a Japanese business principle “kaizen”—which directly translates as “improvement,”—saying that kaizen is actually quite a bit more than just improving a work process. It also means agitating one’s company in ways that it needs to be agitated. This includes agitating the organization around issues of gender bias. What kaizen is really about, he says, is “waking up every day trying to make things better.” You can be deeply respectful of culture while also pushing the culture in ways it needs to change, he said. Marino also shared another great piece of advice for anyone thinking about how they show up to work every day around situations that require courage: “If you’re not willing to put your career at risk, you’re actually putting your career at risk.”
During the awards ceremony, Anwarul K. Chowdhury (former UN Under-Secretary General, High Representative to the UN), was presented with Impact Leadership 21’s first Frederick Douglass Award for his activism on behalf of women and girls. Chowdhury perhaps is best known for his role in Resolution 1325, which established that peace is inextricably linked to women’s participation in governance and security, and in situations of armed conflict, made rape a crime of war. Why is the award named after Frederick Douglass? Here’s a good reminder of his role in the women’s movement.
Later in the day, there was the all-men panel moderated by Barbara Annis (Chair Emeritus of the Women’s Leadership Board at the Harvard Kennedy School, author of Work With Me: The Eight Blind Spots Between Women and Men in Business) in which we heard from five business/civic leaders about how and why they are advocating for women’s leadership now.
Ron Glover (VP for Diversity and Workforce Programs, HR, IBM) shared IBM’s story long commitment to gender equity in the workplace—IBM moved on equal pay for women long before the Equal Pay Act of 1963—and spoke about what this means for the company today. John Gerzema (co-author of The Athena Doctrine) shared, “I’m an advocate for women and girls, but I’m not approaching it through the lens of diversity or inclusion; I’m approaching it squarely through data, analytics, and empirical proof that the ways of women— feminine values, feminine ways and competencies (that both men and women can share)—are going to be the operating system of the 21st century.” In an “increasingly social, interdependent, and incredibly transparent world,” the values and insights women bring to the table will be more essential to us than ever, he says.
What do you think? Should we support women and women’s leadership because it’s the right thing to do, or because it’s a good business decision?
Perhaps we don’t have to answer the question, perhaps there are many paths to leadership parity, but it’s still the question I’m left with after a day of being reminded of all the progress women have made and how far we have left to go.
Read more posts by Lex Schroeder.