One of the more encouraging themes emerging in businesses over the past several years is a wider recognition of the gender gap. But while acknowledgement is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, the challenge of actually rectifying the issue still stands.
During the recent Equities Women’s Council Roundtable, held at the New York offices of Alvarez & Marsal, women business leaders shared some profound insights into why gender equality in the workplace remains an elusive goal for corporate America. Moderated by Equities Women’s Council Founder Silvia Davi, CMO and Broadcast Contributor of Equities.com, the fireside chat featured Kristy Wallace, President of Ellevate; Angelica Fuentes, Founder of the Angelica Fuentes Foundation, and Wendy Diamond, Founder of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Foundation.
“The Equities Women’s Council is a fairly new community launched this year to build awareness of women’s leadership trends and bring together dynamic females making a difference to highlight gender equality issues,” Davi said. “The goal is to empower ambassadors, both male and female that bring to light women’s issues in corporate America, entrepreneurship, venture capital, and other key areas and sectors. The concept behind the council is to disrupt in the world of women’s issues and cover the latest emerging trends.”
While most people have a vague understanding of the challenges that women face, few probably realize just how staggering the statistics really are. Beyond the pay gap, major issues include:
Identifying Root Causes of Gender Inequality
What’s more concerning is the lack of progress made over the past decade in key issues such as women in the labor force, women with skilled jobs, and women in leadership roles.
“One out of three women in America live in poverty,” Diamond said. “Companies with women on their boards are 30% more profitable, but only 7% of venture dollars go to women-owned businesses. When you look at the numbers, it all starts making sense that we need to really empower women.”
As part of her efforts, Diamond is focused on spreading the message to over 144 countries to proclaim Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. She’s also launching ChooseWomen.org in an effort to mark Nov. 30 as an official day to support women-owned businesses.
While the discussion covered some of the biggest challenges women in business face today, it really focused on the role that culture–both from a societal and a corporate standpoint–has played a significant role in reinforcing the proverbial glass ceiling, and shaping people’s mindsets as to what their potential really is. More importantly, it discussed how women can take control, both individually and collaboratively, to reverse that trend.
“You can’t do what you don’t see,” Wallace said. “If you don’t see women as the CEO, then maybe you see women as the VP, so then you say, ‘One day, I want to be the VP [rather than the CEO],’ because that’s what you see. So we need to change that ratio and we need to believe that we can be whatever we want to be. I think we also need to change company cultures so that it’s more inclusive of work-life balance, of families, of the whole individual. If you’re a happier employee then you’re a more productive employee, then you’re going to be doing more for that company and yourself to move ahead.”
Through Ellevate, Wallace is helping to build one of the largest professional networks for women to help close the gender gap. By fostering a community with a common goal, Ellevate is trying to provide women with resources and contacts to serve as a professional support system.
Interestingly enough, addressing the systemic issues being perpetuated in business today is one thing, but understanding that the problems may start much earlier in people’s cultural upbringing—long before they ever enter the workforce—is an entirely different thing altogether. Fuentes provided her own experiences as an example.
“To most Latino men, [women] either should be one of three things,” she said. “A daughter; if you’re lucky enough, a wife; and if you’re really lucky and you want to be respected by society, then a mother to somebody. That’s something we need to change, and that’s something I chose to change.”
As the founder of the Imperative Fund, Fuentes understands the power that access to capital can bring for disadvantaged segments of society. That’s why she’s working to create the Gender Equality Fund, which is aimed to link the top of the business corporate sector with women at the base of the income pyramid. The goal is to empower impoverished women to be able to invest and gain access to the power of capital returns.
What Women Empowerment Means… and How It’s Achieved
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the discussion was how women can empower themselves and each other by taking more active roles in their everyday lives, both professionally and personally. The drive to change in external forces, women (and men, for that matter) need to first look within.
“First and foremost, accept that you are a wonderful woman, and then believe in yourself,” Fuentes said. “Believe in that wonderful being that’s inside of you and awaken your own power. A lot of women go through life giving that power to their dads and then their husbands and sometimes even to their children. It’s yours and it’s for you to run with it. Have a plan and work very hard with determination and discipline. Things don’t come easy. Take risks. Where I come from, women aren’t taught to take risks; men are. It’s OK if you fail. Don’t worry about failing. Society has told women that failure is not acceptable. If you fall once or twice, get up. Never change your dreams; change your strategy…so that you can reach that dream or finish line that you have for yourself.”
Fuentes added that women need to be able to help each other for the greater good of the cause, which isn’t necessarily always the case. It was a sentiment echoed by Wallace, who said women need to celebrate the achievements of other women in their network, publicly and loudly.
“Most importantly, [women need to] have a voice,” Wallace said. “We know that 53% of the women in the Ellevate community say they feel they have no voice in their company culture and their policies as it pertains to women. If we don’t speak up, then we don’t have a voice, and we’re not part of that conversation and not influencing and impacting change. If we want to close the gender achievement gap in business, then a big part of that is being a part of that conversation and driving that change.”
Diamond noted that a critical part of the equation is to focus on the positivity of enacting change in the circumstance around you. Often times, it may be easy to let negativity dominate a situation, but as Diamond noted, that’s a conscious decision each person makes.
“Be passionate with whatever you do,” Diamond said. “I always say to people, everything that happens to you in life, whether it’s a personal thing or a work thing–it’s a positive. It might be the most disastrous thing–but there’s a reason. Look at everything as a positive. We live one life and it’s a decision you have in your mind.”
“Always be proactive and excited, and always have a dream. If you have a dream, you have hope, and if you have hope, you have a dream.”
For those interested in learning more about Equities Women’s Council contact Ashley Gibson at Ashley@Equities.Com
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