It has not been a banner year for women thus far. In the past few weeks, two female heads of state have stepped down. (That’s significant given that, as of September 2022, just 28 of the 193 member states of the United Nations were headed by women.) While both departures were considered voluntary, it’s important to view these resignations through the prism of current events and attitudes. The reality is that even as women make gains in education, business, and government, social and political forces are undermining further advances. We can see that wherever we look—from increasing infringements on women’s bodily autonomy to the rise of the incel movement. Equally troubling, a new international study by the Reykjavik Index for Leadership has found that trust in women leaders has declined markedly in the past year—a trend some see as reflecting growing hostility toward women in power.
This is a problem, and not just for women. How can nations, businesses, and institutions hope to reach the limits of their potential when deprived of the creativity, brainpower, and skills of half the population? They can’t. Until women cast off the shackles hampering their full participation, much of their value will remain dormant. Given the immense global challenges we face, this is not something we can afford.
So, how do we fix this? Within businesses, I see three clear routes to progress.
Recent years have shown us the power of allyship in supporting the rights of underrepresented groups, whether racial minorities or members of the LGBTQ+ community. How can we better activate this for women in business, who research has shown are habitually interrupted, dismissed, or overlooked in the workplace? I recall reading about senior-level women at one of the tech giants regularly getting together to discuss the agenda for upcoming meetings. They would outline the points or proposals members of the group wanted to make and then commit to ensuring this input was heard. It could be as simple as saying, “I’d like to hear more about Jane’s idea regarding XYZ.” Such allyship should involve both women and men—and must include those at the highest levels of leadership.
Plant plenty of poppies—and create space for them to grow.
Australia gave us the term tall poppy syndrome, describing people’s tendency to “cut down” those who stand out for their achievements. I would argue that this syndrome is far worse for women in business, who find themselves increasingly visible (and vulnerable) the further up the ladder they climb. Exacerbating the problem: Whereas men’s foibles or failures are attributed to the individuals alone, women’s are too often seen as impugning their entire gender. Until there are enough women in the highest levels of leadership, those who exist on that plane will carry the burden of representing their entire sex, with any perceived flaw having an unreasonable impact on the trust gap. This is one reason we cannot take our foot off the gas pedal when pushing for gender equity in leadership. One way we approach this at Philip Morris International is by challenging ourselves with clear targets. In 2022, we met our company-wide goal of filling at least 40 % of management positions with women, now we’re targeting at least 35 % of senior roles to be held by women by 2025. Of course, diversity targets alone will not ensure lasting change. To reap the full benefits of diversity, we must also strive for an inclusive environment that enables everyone to be their best selves. And the only way to become better at including everyone is to measure and track progress consistently.
Say it out loud.
Too often, women’s accomplishments go unacknowledged within businesses unless they reach the level of being headline worthy. Adding to the problem is women’s tendency to be less confident than men in their capabilities, regardless of the caliber of their performance. We can counter that trend by training managers at every level to communicate not just about what women in the company are doing, but also how that’s bolstering the business and why a healthy gender balance is critical to growth. Make clear the business case. And ensure that women feel that support. Our yearlong Inclusive Future research program determined that companies must use a carefully curated mix of measures and tools to accurately determine and enhance employees’ sense of belonging.
We’re less than three months into the year. What can you do in the next three quarters to ensure 2023 is a banner year for women at your company?