Firms Taking Gender Equality Challenge. Who Will Win?

by Amy-Willard Cross

When it came to marriage equality, San Francisco led the nation. Now it’s racing ahead on gender equality.  And the White House is watching.

The city government just introduced The Gender Equality Challenge.  It may sound like a sports event or reality TV show, but really it’s a new way to improve the way businesses are run. Who wouldn’t want to win that?

Companies in the Bay area with 1,000 employees can sign up.   To participate they must already be doing something right and have a model practice they’re willing to share that addresses one of the following principles:

1.  Employment and compensation.

2.  Work-life balance and career development. 

3. Health, safety, and freedom from violence. 

4. Management and governance.

5. Business, supply chain, and marketing practices.

6. Civic and community engagement.

7. Leadership, transparency, and accountability.

So far, Symantec (makers of Norton Antivirus), Deloitte, Schwab, AT&T, Twitter and Levis have signed up. * They will share their practices to promote gender equality at a forum in early 2014. The goal is to continue collecting and showcase the best ones so others can emulate.

San Francisco’s Ann Lehman, whose business card actually reads “Women’s Human Rights specialist" explains, "There are two ways, you can use a hammer and a stick or you can use a carrot. You can hammer a company, you can hit them with regulations, or you can attempt to acknowledge them, give them credit for what they are doing and encourage them to do more.”  

Europe took the stick approach, which works, she admits, although not perfectly.  The carrot might work better in America.  Lean In has gotten people thinking about what the individual can do and is making people aware of these issues--and talking about them.

Why might companies suddenly care about gender equality?  According to the San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women, (yes really, it exists), it improves financial performance, the brand and organizational health.  Plus those who meet the Challenge will be seen as leaders. 

Lehman says, “Companies are struggling to maintain the best women. The model of work was created in 19th century based on men.  Learning how to make the workforce work is something all companies are facing.” Millennial won’t stand for the work culture of their parents. Even Goldman Sachs now prohibits employees from weekend work in order to attract the cream of the crop.   Retaining good people and moving women up the ladder, continues to be a constant struggle.

Addressing diversity should help any workplace meet the 21st  century reality. Gender analysis, doesn’t just look at women, but also takes race, age, disability into account and look at them holistically.  It’s not just a H.R. issue, Lehman says, “It needs to be a different way of thinking. If people think women and men women bring different things to the table, then more diverse the workplace, the more you can realize the best diverse thinking of everyone and the better your product and workplace will be.”  The program itself is a bit diverse, it doesn’t just apply to professionals, but hourly workers are also included.

This all started in 2008, when the city created the Gender Equality Principles, which it hashed out over two days with Calvert and Verite. There were 100 different benchmarks that companies could try to reach and a web-based survey method that you can use to test your company. 

The challenge for the Gender Equality Challenge will be whether corporations share information.  Lehman says that American business culture can be competitive and proprietary. Indeed, the city of New York did a similar program with non-profits but hasn’t yet shared the results.


Of course, many companies have created countless initiatives for themselves, but being a government program, the Challenge will be free for anyone from around the world to learn from and perhaps copy!  It’s kind of open source social progress.   Symantec's Cecily Joseph, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility and Chief Diversity Officer told VITAMIN W, "Sometimes seeing real examples of how a company did something is motivation enough for someone else to try it."

When it comes to making change, Lehman notes it has to come from the top and needs a champion.  The CEO of Symantec has been one, as has Barbara Kauffman on the County Board of Supervisors who made sure the Gender Project had money, a task force and reporting mechanism. If not, it risked devolving into an empty feel good gesture.

When asked what company is the model of gender equality, Lehman says nobody is perfect.  At least not yet, Deloitte may have great programs, but the travel and long hours means they lose many women.  But businesses that get one thing right could be enough to inspire others. Symantec is certainly leading the way by increasing the percentage of women on the board to 30 percent Joseph said, "We added two talented and experienced women, Anita Sands and Suzanne Vautrinot, to the one we already had, Geraldine B. Laybourne. This change was deliberate, as the board felt it was imperative that we have more diversity and intentionally set out to accomplish this."

 And maybe more  corporations will want to “keep up with the Joneses”, in the best possible way. 


Addendum:  Since our interview, more companies have signed up for the challenge.  Baker & McKenzie, eBay and Bayer

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