What Will Your Legacy Be?
By Coco Brown. Women across the country are proving to be strong, capable, and willing to step up to the plate and make a difference. But we still need men to put us in the game.
So if you’re a man in power wondering why we’re calling out to you for help, my hope is that the research and guidance below will answer that question, and inspire you to work more closely by our side.
Gender parity is not a women’s issue. It is an equal rights issue that also creates an economic problem that touches each of us—men and women alike. Numerous studies, including those completed by Morgan Stanley
and the Peterson Institute for International Economics
, show that a greater balance in the composition of boardrooms and C-suites contributes directly to increased returns, in addition to more robust diversity across skill sets, thought processes, and other professional attributes. Businesses literally profit from advancing women through the ranks.
While the majority of decision makers may understand that putting women in positions of power is beneficial, there is a significant disconnect when it comes to how to bring us to a state of parity. Men, this is where you come in.
In any arena, individuals in power have the most impact on who holds important positions. We see this in politics, education, and other majority-rules situations, as well as in corporations. Now consider who these individuals are, and you will find that, much more often than not, they are male, and usually white. What this means is that the power to change the balance of our boardroom diversity lies within the hands of white men. Women can, and should, continue to push for parity, but without the assistance of those who make decisions (men), we will continue to move the needle at minuscule increments—1% per year. At this rate, we’ll be lucky to reach a balanced boardroom breakdown in the next 30 years.
It has been said that job seekers are most likely to find success through constant networking, and there is good reason behind this. When the time comes to fill open positions, whether in family-owned shops or on corporate boards, those in power look to who they know. Another truth? More often than not, these networks are composed of very similar individuals. Research shows that men don’t recommend women to boards in part because they don’t know any qualified women. This is why some have the perception that we just aren’t out there.
At Athena Alliance, we know the number of women on boards isn’t a pipeline problem, but a “who you know” problem. Our primary strategy faces this issue head on by putting boards in need in contact with women who can benefit them. But we can’t do all the work. Men on boards (and women, too): let us know when you have open seats!
"As trusted authorities in the business realm, white male leaders are free to recommend and sponsor anyone of any race or gender without reprecussion."
The “who you know” challenge is compounded by the fact that many men do not grasp their roles in bringing our boards (and companies, in general) closer to gender parity. So often, without experiencing and being part of a struggle yourself, it is difficult to understand how it affects others and how to remedy the situation. And like the phenomenon of the “bystander effect,” it is easy to convince ourselves that someone else will step up to do the work, and we need only help when asked. Consider this your invitation. If all men in power are sure that others will do the work to advance women to boards, 83% of board members will not act. We need you to be the bystander who starts the movement.
Men are in a uniquely formidable role here, in that, as individuals of power, you can advocate for whomever you see fit without fearing that your suggestion will be deemed invalid. Women and minority figures do not have this benefit, as Johnson and Hekman revealed in their Harvard Business Review article
, which shows that women and people of color are often viewed in a negative light when they advocate for other women and people of color. On the contrary, as trusted authorities in the business realm, white male leaders are free to recommend and sponsor anyone of any race or gender without repercussions. This is exactly why your participation in sponsoring and helping eligible women is imperative.
Finally, research shows that change within companies must be led by those at top levels, and ideally these leaders should be personally invested in making a push toward equity in the boardroom. This is a simple concept to grasp. Leaders facilitate change in any situation, as they are the ones who hold the power to put new policies in place. Without examples of action from someone who has influence, it is difficult for others in a company to make a difference. Since the majority of those in power are still male, we cannot increase the rate of our progress towards parity without these CEOs and leaders taking responsibility to effect change. And if we don’t increase this rate, the daughters we are currently raising with high hopes will have minimal chances to find a place in the boardroom.
So what will your legacy be: unfinished work or positive change? Are you confident that if we continue at our current pace your daughters will have opportunities that women today do not?
Coco Brown is founder and CEO of The Athena Alliance, an organization dedicated to advancing diversity in the boardroom by preparing executive women for board service and facilitating board matches. In addition to leading Athena, Coco is the founder and CEO of Executive Kinections, a CXO focused Silicon Valley consultancy that advises executive teams in the development of their visioning, organizational design, and strategic planning process.