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What can we do about gender equality?

March 8th is International Women’s Day, and it’s time to think about what we can do to accelerate the prediction that it will take a whopping 208 years to reach gender equality in the workforce with our current efforts today.  So if this makes you itch for faster change, I've got some easy, actionable ideas for what we can all do in the meantime.

The good news is that most of us have access to some low hanging fruit. The key is to be on the lookout for points of leverage – times when you are spending either your talent or your money. Then, before you spend, ask some questions designed to inspire change. In short, “check first.”

For example, after you’ve received your job offer and finished your negotiations (my tips on that here),  but before you accept (or decline!) you have a ton of power.  The company wants you.  Especially if it’s a big company, consulting firm, or investment bank, they will be bending over backwards, willing to walk over hot coals to get you to join them.  Until you accept, after which the power shifts entirely back to them.  But for those however many glorious moments in between, you hold all the cards.  So use them!

Ask your HR contact questions like:

  • Are men and women in my role paid equitably in terms of total compensation (including bonus)?  Have you done an audit to ensure that is true?
  • What % of the people at my level are women?  What about the level above that?  And the level above that?  Often the gender breakdown of board members on publicly traded companies is available, but not much else about the career ladder.  So ask!
  • What percent of women who take maternity leave come back?  Even if you’re not planning to have children in the near future, this question will give you good insight into the company’s culture.

“Check first” also applies to when you are spending money.  Whenever I hire a law firm, accounting firm, or creative agency, I ask what percent of the partnership is made up of women, and people of color.  It’s fun to watch people squirm if they are embarrassed.  It’s WAY MORE fun to hear great answers, and to give the people at the firm who have taken proactive steps a platform to shine.  “Catch” people in the act of doing good.  It will strengthen their efforts to have a paying client who cares. As a woman-owned company with a mostly female team, it would be my dream to have someone ask us about how we think about and act on creating opportunities for women to advance in the workforce.

Try this with your next major purchase!  I “checked first” in buying a car last month.  I went to four dealerships to test drive both fully electric and hybrid electric cars, and it was fun to go in and ask, “Can I work with a woman sales rep please?”  Three of the four didn’t have one.  The fourth did, and we bought our car from her.  (Thank you Rhonda!).

When we are recruits and customers, we have out-sized leverage.  How we choose to use it can have a significant impact on shortening the centuries we have to reach gender equality.  It takes 30 seconds or less to have a huge impact.  If every college graduate started asking these questions, then sharing the data, we could have a massive, enduring impact.  If every woman who is responsible for spending at a company started asking these questions, change would happen even faster. 

Just try it!  One huge bonus is that it actually feels great to wield influence for good.  Sarah*, a recent college grad who asked these “Check First” questions before she took her job at a top consulting firm told me that it was fun to experience herself as someone who could have an impact.  She loved seeing that she didn’t have to until she was on a Board to make that happen.  In fact, my friend Alex* who is the only woman Board member of a publicly traded company observes that she doesn’t get to make change happen just from her position.  

The best part is that you don’t have to wait until you are on a Board, until you are a CEO, or until you are in a position of leadership and authority.  You are the CEO of you, your talents and your money, and that can be pretty persuasive in the right situation.