Corporate America has never faced more pressure to deliver social value.
With waning public trust in our institutions and a newer generation of socially conscious workers stepping onto the scene, this has become an imperative both in our workplaces and in society. One issue encompassing representation, safety, equal pay, and more: that of gender equality.
Unfortunately, getting gender parity “right” can still be a daunting process for a lot of brands. But it isn’t really a choice anymore when a reported 82% of working female millennials look to an organizations’ policy on diversity, inclusion, and gender equality as an important factor in determining whether or not to seek employment at that company. Companies need to be able to meaningfully engage in an already crowded and nuanced gender-equality dialogue in order to stay relevant for more workers. And ultimately, companies need to accomplish all of these in ways that drive business growth.
We’ve found that for many companies, the issue is that they just don’t know how to contribute. We’ve also found that companies that perform well on gender equality talk about the issue frequently. Take L’Oréal’s ads that correlate female leadership to better innovation as an example.
On the other hand, companies that perform poorly also talk about the issue frequently, albeit in a different way—most often to mitigate the fallout from an ongoing PR crisis, as in Uber’s “moving forward” campaign following the ride share company’s 2017 culture crisis.
The Smile Curve on Gender Equality in the Workforce
We call this pattern the “smile curve,” with the high frequency of communication due to negative or positive reasons visually represented on the top points of either end of the U-curve.
When it comes to gender issues, most companies find themselves smack dab in the middle of the curve—meaning they aren’t speaking very often about gender equality because they are doing neither poorly nor well when it comes to the issue. These companies are making some progress but are hesitant to talk about it due to the risk of exposing areas where they still have ground to cover, or they don’t have the knowledge or resources to talk about it in a way that is authentic.
For these companies, there are three big questions to ask in order to determine how to be a productive and positive part of the gender equality discussion.
Is your overall business and brand strategy aligned with gender equality?
(Hint: Your answer should be “Yes.”)
This is likely the simplest question you’ll get. Innovation is six times higher at companies with more equal workplace cultures, and companies with more female executives in decision-making positions generate higher market returns. And from an external perspective, companies need to consider the power and value of their female audiences, particularly when they drive between 70% and 80% of consumer purchasing.
What is your organization doing well today that you can bring forward, and what are weak spots that you have to remedy?
Determining where you stand on gender equality topics relative to peers is not always easy. At Lippincott, we’ve helped UN Women advance a set of clear guideposts called the Women’s Empowerment Principles, which guide companies to promote gender equality across the workplace, marketplace, and in our communities. By following these principles, organizations can holistically address issues of gender equality and avoid the trap of narrowly investing in one aspect of gender equity, such as representation, while neglecting other important issues, like supplier diversity.
To understand what you can amplify, and what needs fixing, consider taking an inventory of your organization’s current efforts and where you meet or exceed the (ever-increasing) standards of your peers. If you identify areas where you fall short—for example, do you only address the workplace, but not the marketplace or the community you serve?—look at what internal or external levers could help address the gaps.
Spend some time thinking about the areas where your accomplishments or investments are ahead of your peers. Which of those areas are most unique to your business and strategy and could further your reputation as you scale your impact?
With that foundation, you’ll be in a position to set meaningful goals to address gaps and scale strategically aligned efforts, and then to mobilize the right teams across the business to achieve them.
How can you engage in conversations around gender equality that are meaningful, unique and authentic to your brand?
Making gender initiatives credible and authentic to your organization requires you to connect the issue directly to your brand’s purpose. For example, when Salesforce invested more than $10 million to close its gender, ethnic, and racial pay gap in the US, it cemented a strong proof point in the company’s larger ambition to help create a future with greater opportunity and equality for everyone.
So, to authentically communicate about gender equality, you have to first explore the connection between gender equality and your brand’s purpose (its reason for being) and commitments (the way the brand uniquely delivers for its audiences).
Think about who you are connecting with internally and externally. Understand what they care about on topics of gender equality and consider what role you can uniquely play in the space based on what you stand for and what you can commit to accomplish.
Then, find the overarching story that brings it all together. This may require finding new ways to publicly acknowledge where you are on your journey and the unique work you are doing in alignment with your brand strategy.
For the many companies in the murky middle of the gender conversation, taking the first step toward crystallizing the role of gender equality for the company can be scary. However, making progress toward meaningfully engaging in our ongoing dialogue about the issue benefits not just society at large, but a business’s bottom-line.
Article originally published in Quartz at Work on March 12, 2020