If you read my post last week, you’ll know that we just completed our third quarterly panel discussion on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). This time, we focused on how to close the gender equity gap in the workplace with a discussion titled, HERstory: A Conversation With Executive Women About Gender Equality. Here’s a recap of who participated and some of the key takeaways.

Monica Davy, our moderator, serves as the Chief Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Vizient, where she is responsible for guiding the organization’s overarching strategy, program implementation and ongoing support for culture and D&I initiatives. Panelist Nupur Bhushan joined us from New Zealand where she serves as the General Manager for the ResMed business in Australia and New Zealand. Alessandra Lezama is the founder and CEO of TOOTRiS, Child Care On-Demand, a technology platform that is reinventing how parents find, enroll, and pay for quality child care. MyMy Lu recently joined Thermo Fisher Scientific, a world leader in serving science with a global team of 80,000 colleagues. MyMy serves as the company’s Director of Diversity & Inclusion. Antonia Luna serves as the Senior Vice President of Branch Network and Support Services at California Coast Credit Union, where she is responsible for strategic direction, growth, member experience, delivery channels and operational excellence.

Here are a few highlights from this thought-provoking and candid discussion.

1.As you think about your career and how far you’ve come, is there a moment that you can point to that changed the trajectory of your career or propelled you to where you are today? 

MyMy: One of my memorable achievements is being able to conceptualize and launch a broadband adoption program to help individuals from low-income families gain access to the internet. The program became an industry standard for closing the digital divide.

At that time, I was asked to partner with my boss to take a meeting with an external partner on how we could collaborate to create this program. My boss had a calendar conflict and opted to attend the other meeting, though I told her I thought this one would be important not to miss. I was extremely frustrated that my boss didn’t see the urgency of this meeting and I was quite junior in my role. But I decided to take the meeting alone and ended up with an opportunity to build the program from the ground up. That program gave me visibility at my company, in my industry and community, and propelled me to leadership opportunities. We even got a shoutout from President Obama!

Lesson learned: never pass up an opportunity to stretch, do your homework and be ready when opportunity strikes, what seems like extra work may end up being your ticket to do much more. And when opportunity strikes, work your butt off to make sure you can show your potential and impact.

Antonia Luna: I started in Credit Union’s when I was a 19-year old single mom. At that point I had no idea what I wanted for a career. I was just trying to support myself. But I remember instinctively knowing that I was not going to stay a back office posting teller my entire life. I was motivated to learn more and asked the bosses to teach me everything about the credit union. They allowed me to work in every department. After learning all I could at that Credit Union, I made the best decision of my career and left my comfort zone and went to work for a Bank as a manager with a ‘can do’ attitude and no management experience. That decision changed the trajectory of my career. I learned from that experience to not be afraid to ask for a job, even if I had no experience. Because I had confidence in my ability to lead people and was able to learn quickly I believed I can do anything. And I still believe that today. I guess you can say I was “leaning in” before Lean In was a thing!

2.    The modern workplace has really changed, and the COVID pandemic amplified the need for workplace flexibility. What are some workplace flexibility policies or practices that companies should take action on to support women and accelerate progress in closing the gender gap in the workforce? 

Alessandra Lezama: Just months before the pandemic hit, women had crossed a major threshold as they had become the majority of jobholders in the U.S. Since then, millions of women have suffered a big reversal, with nearly 3 million American women leaving the workforce, mainly due to child care demands. When women leave the workforce, they lose much more than just their annual salary; the cost of this decision follows them for life. After taking into account the potential wage growth and lost retirement savings over time, a woman who leaves the workforce loses up to four times their annual salary per year.

Much of the discussion surrounding workplace flexibility especially during the pandemic has been around working remotely when job duties allow, non-standard start and end times, and extended FMLA. While these are all policies that help, they are not the key to supporting women in the workforce. Women need access to affordable quality child care to have the peace of mind required to focus on their careers. Whether working from home or in the office or on the go! Employers need to recognize that child care is not just a family issue, it’s a business issue. We need a digital convergence that connects all stakeholders (like healthcare) – including public subsidy and employer sponsored programs – conveniently available in real time so we can provide a solution that’s good for everyone, not just for the segment of the market that can afford it.

Antonia Luna: I agree with Alessandra. Working moms typically had the “second shift” or “double shift”, taking care of the family after a full day of work. When schools closed, women found themselves having to work a “double-double”. Many of the moms had to choose between showing up at front-line jobs or caring for and educating their children. But it’s not just the children, some women care for aging parents too. Policies such as flexible work schedules and hybrid remote options are important to consider, depending on the job of course. Also, shifting the mindset from time spent in the office to assessing workers’ performance on their delivery and achievements. Providing unconscious bias training can also help create the awareness needed at all levels to close the gender gap.

3.    In 2019, more than 180 CEOs signed an open letter opposing state efforts to restrict reproductive rights in America. As of this May, more than 500 such restrictions have been introduced in the U.S. so far in 2021. What role should female leaders play in helping their C-suite navigate the grey areas of this highly divisive issue?

Alessandra Lezama: Personal values are the real pivot of the controversy surrounding reproductive rights in America. While we all have a right to our credence, the prevailing truth is that reproductive rights affect a woman’s body, and this is not subject to be controlled by the government or a foreign party. Women’s leadership is key in magnifying our voice and garnering support from men on women’s right to decide over their own bodies indistinctively from personal beliefs or values.

Nupur Bhushan: This question is a tough one for me primarily because I am not based in the U.S.  From afar, this seems more of a political issue than a gender equality issue. That said, many gender challenges are sensitive and need to be navigated with open dialogue with the C-suite. A combination of employee engagement data, open conversations that enable personal experiences and story-telling, feedback from ERGs, external best practices, education, awareness and actual demographic data with trends on hiring, promotions, and turnover can be very powerful tools in getting the C-suite engaged. We’ve navigated pronouns, common bathrooms, and parental leave policies successfully in many cases. Of course, we haven’t always succeeded either, but the key is not to give up!

4.    The racial justice movement brought to the forefront some of the systemic barriers that have also plagued the workplace. The concept of a concrete ceiling points to the factors preventing women of color from advancing at work. In your experience and/or opinion, how can companies be more mindful of the hurdles that women of color face, differently from their colleagues?

Antonia Luna: The concept of a concrete ceiling is such an important visual. With a glass ceiling you can see the possibility, but can’t get to it. You can’t see through concrete, so you don’t even get to see the possibility. In my opinion, we need to have an honest and open dialogue about gender, race and ethnicity, biases and micro-aggressions. We need to be intentional about becoming allies for women of color, advocating for them behind closed doors ensuring they are valued for their efforts, and speaking up when we hear micro-aggressions in the workplace.

MyMu Lu: This question underscores the importance of intersectionality. Though a woman of color, what I experience also can’t be generalized to all women of color. But I can share that as an Asian immigrant woman from a traditional Chinese family, these dimensions of my identity do impact my experience at work. (I was taught that women don’t need to be that successful, younger siblings shouldn’t speak up, and subordinates never question authority. Yet the workplace demands that I be confident but not controlling, work harder to prove that I do have the potential, stay on my toes to make sure I don’t give anyone an excuse to believe my success was derived from anything other than my achievements. All of this takes a mental toll and can lead to burnout.)

There are a couple of realities we need to acknowledge. First, the American workplace is often characterized by white and masculine standards of professionalism and qualifications. From superficial things like attire or hairstyle—I once had a colleague who was told she needed to wear more blazers and cut her hair short in order to look more professional and like a leader. Then there are arbitrary things like how leaders must act and work. You’ve likely heard that certain people (men) have executive presence and probably gravitated towards them too. But what are we weighing when say that? Are we truly considering their contributions or making an assessment based on societal stereotypes that have been planted in our heads? Do we let the collaborative nature of women unfairly peg them as lacking control or command? Women of color, in particular, must work twice as hard to fit the mold and disprove myths about their qualifications. I think companies can be more mindful of who they glorify and what they personify as leadership qualities so that women and women of color do not have to exert extra energy to fit the mold. If collaboration and giving everyone a voice is a positive trait, reinforce that at every level. Challenging the traditional “look and feel” of a leader will help us be more objective about performance and potential.

Second, the lack of representation makes it difficult for women of color to feel like they belong. Not seeing people like them (and this applies to any group), can deter women from even entering the field—many male-dominated industries can attest to how difficult it can be to recruit women and retain them. Lack of diversity and representation also reinforces unfair stereotypes of who is qualified to do certain roles. If we’re accustomed to female executive assistants, are we likely to think a male could not do that job as well—is that fair for males or females? I know many of us have heard, “I don’t really see her in that role…” Are those assessments objectives or an unconscious bias? Are we creating barriers to entry if we compare a candidate to a pool that doesn’t include their identity in the first place? Does the lack of women of color in leadership make them less qualified? I believe companies can be more intentional about hiring and promoting deserving women so that women, and women of color, can see a pathway to success. Have objective measures of success and don’t put the burden on women to prove their potential simply because we haven’t seen them in that role.

These are realities and challenges that any group may face. But a woman of color is fighting gender bias and racial bias—a double whammy. A lack of belonging can lead to a lack of psychological safety and self-doubt. The extra effort women of color must exert causes more mental stress, takes a bigger toll and distracts from what we can gain if women of color can bring their whole selves to work. Being intentional about supporting women of color simply levels the playing field and acknowledges that this group faces additional barriers differently from their peers.

5.    Allyship, mentorship, and sponsorship are critical for supporting gender equity. What success have you personally or your company experienced in these areas? 

Nupur Bhushan: Personally, when I moved to Australia, I really struggled with no network or women of color that I could seek for support in my initial years. Since then, I have been determined to help and support women of color, specifically from Indian sub-continent, if I can. Over the past 4-5 years, I’ve taken on at least 1 if not 2 mentees every year. I believe I have helped influence some career and personal decisions through these experiences but more importantly I learned a lot more about myself and from each of the amazing women I’ve had the privilege to speak with.

ResMed delved in trying out mentoring and coaching in multiple ways such as encouraging each C-suite member to take on 2 mentees as a part of their OKRs; tribally pairing mentors/mentees in a particular function with a diverse set of mentors from alternate areas of specializing has been an amazing opportunity for two-way learning.

Alessandra Lezama: In my experience, men have played an important role in providing me with a platform to have a voice and more importantly to have their ear. While it’s true, and much is said about how important it is for women to help other women in the workforce, in order to achieve true gender equality, we need men on board! Recognizing that men and women in the workplace can both be extremely successful while having completely different perspectives, work styles, etc. must be exemplified by men promoting and sponsoring more women purposefully.

Thanks to our amazing moderator, esteemed panelists, passionate sponsors, engaged participants, and powerhouse team, for showing up, for sharing, and for continuing to build community around getting equity right. We are honored to present quality programs like this to continue taking you from what is to what is possible.

QuestionHow would you rate your organization on closing the gender gap in the workplace?

Driven by the premise that excellence is the result of aligning people, purpose and performance, Center for Executive Excellence facilitates training in leading self, leading teams and leading organizations. To learn more, subscribe to receive CEE News!

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