What’s the one thing that could bring ExxonMobil, Harvard University, Pfizer, and the former Prime Minister of Canada together?
I know this sounds like the start of a bad joke, but the answer is no joke: they came together to discuss how to tap into the now better-educated half of the population — women.
Nearly 150 years since Elizabeth Cady Stanton warned at the Women’s Suffrage Convention in Washington that “society is but the reflection of man himself,” 150 people gathered at the Harvard Kennedy School this weekend to be told the very same thing. Although women outperform men in education, they continue to be under-represented in positions of power. Women make up 47% of the US labor force but only 3% of Fortune500 CEOs, and more than half of the US population but only 17% of elected representatives in Congress.
Far from dwelling on the persistence of the global gender gap, however, this conference* sought to close it. Marie Wilson, founder and Director of The White House Project, called on participants to “come up with things that can be done.” With that she passed the baton from our slightly tired and weary change veterans to the men and boys in India who are ringing the door bells of their neighbors to interrupt the domestic violence they hear through the walls, and the female entrepreneur in Norway who is pairing experienced women with corporate boards.
Against the backdrop of 90’s power ballad Wind of Change, Professor Iris Bohnet, Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School, asserted that the business case is ripe. She declared that we are now armed with an arsenal of interventions that go beyond the purely moral claim and focus instead on the social and economic value of diversity.
This resonated with me. As a young student I have analyzed the Gender Gap from every available angle and carved it up into such small segments that I am in danger of trivializing it. Therefore, the opportunity to be able to say, simply, “there is a greater return on investment in women” is not to be taken lightly. At the least, it invites a new audience — the conference was packed full of private sector representatives, eager to hear how their businesses might access this emerging talent pool.
The business case is comprised of social, political and economic evidence, and applies to individuals, groups and organizations. There are elements that are more intuitive — increased gender equality in households, markets and society leads to poverty reduction and economic growth for everyone. And some striking new evidence too — having women on boards is related to the financial performance of companies, and diversity can lead to better performance and decision-making in groups. Certainly, the research points quite clearly to a “diversity bonus” where companies and government alike can no longer afford not to hire the best talent — and that includes women too.
The conference explored a range of new and innovative ways to help companies close their gender gaps. For example, a study by Iris Bohnet, Alexandra van Geen and Max Bazerman of Harvard showed that if you evaluate male and female candidates for a given job at the same time (rather than one at a time), interviewers are less likely to focus on gender than past performance. The result is that the more qualified candidate is selected, regardless of their gender. Gender equality nudges such as these have great appeal because they are cheaper and less intrusive than government or market interventions.
A stickler for the moral argument, I admittedly found it hard to get into the flow of these almost callous efficiency arguments. Reluctant to surrender to those who want women because its smart institutional design rather than because it’s the right thing to do, I wondered what would happen to feminism if we departed from the ethical standpoint. But there was something in those women that took the stage and implored us to hurry history, who asked us not to be sitting here in three years time asking what we can do.
Addressing the conference, Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School asserted that “if women ran the world, the world would already have changed to allow women to run it.” We now have measurements that we didn’t have before, we have the success stories, we have the initiatives and are analyzing their impact. This year the US climbed 12 places to enter the top 20 in the Global Gender Gap Report for the first time. Our world is ever-changing, and it is up to us to “nudge” it in the right direction.
* Closing the Gender Gap: The Business Case for Organizations, Politics and Society, hosted by the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School in partnership with Council of Women World Leaders and World Economic Forum.