The Business Case (and Plan) for Gender Equality
Whitney Wolfe Herd sounded an early alarm on Silicon Valley’s sexist culture in 2014 when she sued her former employer, the dating app Tinder, for discrimination and sexual harassment. Today she’s calling for concrete steps to improve gender inequities in the workplace.
‘Today we’re experiencing a sea change in attitudes toward the treatment of women,’ writes Whitney Wolfe Herd, ‘but progress in workplace gender equality is moving far more slowly.’
I was 24 when I was embroiled in a high-profile lawsuit. This was 2014, long before, en masse and on social media, we said #MeToo and #TimesUp. At the time, I felt completely alone. Visceral, hateful online harassment from strangers left me paranoid and anxious for years afterward. I suffered from panic attacks and found myself drinking to calm my nerves. Outward support was almost nonexistent.
Today we’re experiencing a sea change in attitudes toward the treatment of women, but progress in workplace gender equality is moving far more slowly—so slowly that the Center for American Progress called women’s professional advancement “a stalled revolution” in a 2017 report.
The percentage of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies has ticked up to 6.4% in 2017 from 4.8% in 2014—a gain but still an embarrassment over all. Women held only 18% of board seats at S&P 1500 companies as of 2016, yet we hold almost 52% of professional-level jobs, earn 60% of master’s degrees and represent 49% of the college-educated labor force, according to government data. And women are still, by and large, hitting a ceiling at middle management.
This inequity persists despite research showing that gender inclusivity drives bottom-line growth. Companies with more women at the executive and board levels perform better, according to a 2016 study by the Peterson Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. And startups with at least one female founder see a better return on their investments, according to recent research from venture-capital firm First Round.
We need more than a cultural shift to solve this problem. All the studies in the world won’t combat the forces that shove female employees off the corporate ladder halfway up, around age 35. Companies must put infrastructure in place to support their female employees and ensure that they receive the benefits of male and female leadership.
This means implementing robust parental-leave policies and ensuring that male workers and adoptive parents across the gender spectrum feel empowered to take their full leave too. Paid family leave gives parents vital support. It also increases employee retention, attracts better talent and improves productivity and engagement, according to a 2017 report from Boston Consulting Group. And a company’s responsibilities to new mothers don’t end when they return to work. These women need nursing rooms that are more than glorified storage spaces—clean, welcoming facilities that are understood to be as essential to the organization as the people who use them.
It means not sidelining mothers with an inflexible culture built around face time—or basing all office social activities around happy hour and then deciding a woman’s heart isn’t in the job if she has to leave at 5 p.m. to have dinner with her children and put them to bed.
It means instituting policies stating unequivocally that no one can be fired for speaking out against discrimination and harassment. The women at all levels of the entertainment industry—from interns to Oscar winners—who kept quiet to protect their careers should be a lesson to every CEO and HR department.
It means believing women when they come forward and coming forward yourself when you witness discriminatory behavior.
It means answering Sheryl Sandberg’s call to #MentorHer. In February, Sandberg’s Lean In organization and the online platform SurveyMonkey released data suggesting that the #MeToo movement is discouraging men from mentoring women. Long before #MeToo, studies showed that white men receive more mentorship than women, people of color and gay men, leading to the massive disparities at the executive level. And the implication that women are poised to make unfounded accusations in droves is even more alarming when every piece of data on false reporting contradicts that false notion. We need to believe women and believe in women. Now is the time we need allies the most.
Whitney Wolfe Herd is the founder and CEO of Bumble.
EWA IS the plan about which she speaks - we are doing it!