In spring 2016, Richard Edelman asked me to take over as chair for our Global Women Executive Network (GWEN), which he and Gail Becker, a former executive committee member of the Edelman and now entrepreneur, founded five years ago. He asked me why so many women in our industry and at Edelman were opting out at a certain stage of their career or making many side steps instead of moving up to take on top leadership responsibility. As the CEO, Richard was understandably unhappy about the fact that only 44 percent of our senior leaders – SVP and above – are women, compared to 63 percent at the next lower level. The question was whether they dropped off, were held back, or were not ambitious enough and satisfied with what they had, and what I suggested to do to fix it.
The fact that he asked me these questions reassured me. It made me believe that chairing this initiative was well invested time and could have an impact. He was acknowledging a problem, seeking answers and eager to find solutions. You might think that this behavior is obvious or normal. You might believe that any business leader must understand that gender equality and talent development are crucial to business success. In my view, this misunderstanding is the root cause of the problem.
More than often the topic does not get the board’s attention, as the C-suite has “better things to do” (financial performance). While many openly support women advancement, only few treat gender equality as a business imperative. But we now know that tackling gender parity without a CEO’s endorsement is a set-up for failure.
In a Fortune 500 survey in 2014, Bersin by Deloitte found out that there is no lack of intention anymore. However, most D&I initiatives today suffer from a lack of the “three Fs”— focus, funding and follow-through. Let’s be honest, this doesn’t mean anything else than a lack of real conviction and commitment in the C-suite.
At Edelman, in our steering committee for GWEN, together with our HR partners, we decided that we needed to treat the topic as any other business-critical initiative to ensure results and sustainable motivation behind it. We needed to start with analysis, link our endeavors to business outcomes and come up with concrete, trackable actions. We initiated focus groups in many offices, listened to perceptions, looked at the numbers, examined exit interviews, talked to other companies to understand best practices – and came up with several limited actions to start with. We did our homework and the math, and we’ve learned that it is an illusion to get to parity much faster than five years.
It is a journey, during which we will stick to our overarching principle: that everybody must earn their way forward, being promoted or recruited only because they are the best person for that job. However, we need to work harder to ensure equal recruitment pipelines, to ensure equal succession planning, to mentor and develop women and encourage them to throw their hat into the ring, increase our efforts to make female role models more visible, and to reinforce a modern work environment and policies which allow for family AND career. And, finally, to reduce unconscious bias, which each of us is a victim to.
I am proud to be working in an organization whose CEO asks questions, wants to know the facts and the insights – and signs off on a program which is ambitious, yet feasible and holds all of us accountable. I am inspired by a team of women and one man in our steering committee, a big team of GWEN leaders in local offices, and a great HR partner who takes stewardship and responsibility for the most important initiatives. I love that we hold each other accountable, ask critical questions, and work towards a common objective.
We’re absolutely not there yet, not at Edelman, not in our industry — and even less so in many other industries. That keeps us busy — there is work to do.
Cornelia Kunze is vice chair, global client management and global chair of Edelman GWEN.