I was fortunate enough to recently attend an event with Sheryl Sandberg and 30 Chief Executives to discuss how we close the gender gap. As Sheryl kindly mentioned I took a lot of notes (as I always do). This is an issue which I'm passionate about and wanted to listen to and absorb other viewpoints on how us men can help make the breakthrough. Through the different opinions and personalities around the table, I learned a huge amount; not only did it reiterate to me that diversity is a competitive advantage for any business but also we must do more to address the shocking statistics that women constitute a meager five per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs, only 19 per cent of corporate board seats and 25 per cent of senior positions.
Many argue that this has to do with trying to strike a balance between working and caring for a family -- but it goes deeper than that, it stems from gender bias. As LeanIn.org explains:
"Men are expected to be assertive, confident and opinionated, so we welcome their leadership. Women are expected to be kind, nurturing and compassionate, so when they lead they go against our expectations... All of us -- men and women throughout the world -- hold these biases, but they are hard to admit and discuss, which makes it difficult to take steps to correct them."
Regardless of gender, this description of female leaders is exactly what a good leader should be, man or woman. One example that was brought up involved pigeon-holing of women into categories, while men are free to move positions within an organization. One woman told me that once she was seen as a receptionist, she would always be seen as a receptionist. Another member of the group explained how, when women join the workforce they are buoyant and excited about their career prospects, but this positivity is soon deflated when they quickly come across gender bias. They see they are not being given the same opportunities as their male peers, and understandably become disillusioned.
I told Sheryl and the group my experiences of the airline industry, and in particular the frankly ludicrous response from some people when on a plane with a female pilot. When she speaks over the address system to welcome everyone on board, I often notice a reaction of panic on the faces of the passengers around me. This reaction is usually even more stark on the faces of female passengers than their male counterparts.
Well, it's time we made prejudices like this a thing of the past. Not only are these assumptions wrong, but they are damaging to business. We've learned first-hand at Virgin how much female leaders can be critical to the success of a business. Despite competing in sectors dominated by men in suits and ties, a number of our companies are helmed by female leaders and employ women in senior roles.
Jean Oelwang of Virgin Unite and Jayne-Ann Gadhia of Virgin Money -- to name a few - run celebrated companies, at the forefront of innovation, and with wonderful company cultures. Jean and Jayne-Anne are great examples of how smart, capable and innovative women leaders can be.
We all need to do more to combat the problem of equality. Just like with issues of racism and homophobia, it's not up to the disadvantaged party to fight the plight of parity alone -- it is up to every single one of us to take the lead. We should follow the example of President Carter, one of The Elders, who recently called women's rights "the fight of my life" and is doing incredible work to further the cause.
There's not a straightforward solution to this challenge but it's one we must meet. Alongside my fellow B Team Leaders and Members, we've committed to cultivating and celebrating diversity at all levels of business. Our recent report 'The Diversity Paradox', in partnership with The Boston Consulting Group and Virgin Unite, emphasized that to drive real change, it's not enough just to implement policies aiming to increase the numbers of minorities. We have to change the culture -- to ensure that everybody values the unique contribution of all individuals, whoever they are. We need to create workplaces where people are cooperative, inclusive, respectful and hold themselves personally accountable.
That's why this month, I am supporting LeanIn.org's efforts to counteract gender biases in the workforce, and in turn offer women the ongoing inspiration and support needed to help them achieve their goal of gender equality. Head over to Virgin.com to read my four suggestions for counteracting gender bias in the workplace.
Removing barriers to success like discrimination and divisions is a necessity for business success. More women in leadership roles will help you seek out and capitalize on more opportunities, find solutions to challenges before they become problems, and create a happier, healthier, more productive company. Lean in and support equality in the workplace -- go to www.leanintogether.org to find out more and join the discussion.