THE BLOG

Corporations, Especially Media and Tech Companies, Should Clearly Commit to Gender Equality and Get Gender Certified

03/12/2015 01:03 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

A few months ago, the New York Times ran a piece by Liza Mundy titled, "The Media has A Woman Problem." The title is the standard media formula to describe corporate gender imbalances, particularly in leadership. Tech has a "woman problem." Hollywood has a "woman problem."  Religion has a "woman problem." Museums have a "woman problem." Book publishing has a "woman' problem."  The GOP has a "woman problem." Most governments have a "woman problem."

What do we typically mean when we use that construction? People, for example, have "alcohol problems" and "drug problems."  Women wanting to work, be paid well and gain prominence in their fields and lead, however, are not instruments of dysfunction, as suggested by these semantics, in the way alcohol and drugs are.

"A woman problem" is language that contributes to the issue, which is complex, rooted in structural institutional biases that favor men, and overwhelmingly, in the United States, white men. Language is a problem across the board because changes in it make people uncomfortable.  There is a perceptual difference when people see, "Corporations lack gender diversity, particularly at senior management levels," and when they see, "Most companies are led by men." Those perceptual differences are even more acute in the United States between, "Corporations lack gender and racial diversity," and, "Most companies are led by white men."  They are, however, two very different ways of describing the situation honestly and the word differences matter.

While overall diversity is a huge issues, some strides have been made in terms of race and ethnicity. In tech for example, the industry can say it has made some progress when it comes to improving diversity, a large percentage of the industry, for example, is now of Asian descent. However, that would be primarily men, not women.  Frequently, where companies are "doing diversity," an awful expression, it is evident that they are not seriously thinking about gender.

Take, for example, the Washington Post. At senior levels, there are men of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, but not a single woman. The Post's editorial management team is an actual fraternity -- an informal one, but one nonetheless. The masthead is comprised of six senior men in editorial management, a group affectionately referred to internally as the "Circle of Trust." The editorial board of the paper is made up of eight men and one woman.  There are fourteen regular columnists, only one of whom is a woman.  Men likewise fill senior positions on the business side and the Post's recently hired publisher is also a man. And yet, this situation does not generate outrage or public concern about journalistic ethics, which it clearly should. The Post, by the way, is hardly unique in the media world.

So, what can and should companies do? A necessary first step is to measure exactly what the situation looks like. Next, establish benchmarks for progress, institute programs and training, invest and allocate resources, then measure again. That is what the EDGE certification program, launched in 2009 does.

"When EDGE does an assessment it is always interesting to see the difference between the perceptions men and women workers have of a company," explains Beyer, who represents EDGE, a Swiss-based company, in the United States. "We ask if employees would recommend the company to a top talent qualified woman, men often overwhelmingly respond yes, and many times women overwhelmingly respond no. It is hard to believe they are working for the same company they view it so differently! But when we check back to the employee data and see very few women at the top, we understand. It appears the women are reflecting the reality that few women rise to the top, and the men are reflecting their reality that rising to the top is not a problem -- for them."

Yesterday, the World Bank committed to becoming EDGE certified.

"We cannot go out and talk about ender equality if we're not serious about it here," President Jim Yong Kim explained. "Women and men deserve the same opportunities to succeed here. And study after study shows that diversity has a positive impact on productivity. These are the reasons each of the entities that make up the World Bank Group and the organization as a whole have targets for reaching gender equity in our middle and management ranks."

The announcement was made to coincide with International Women's Day, and the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

EDGE establishes critical connections, currently missing, between stated goals, data on the ground, and new standards. To that end five key areas in an organization are assessed:

  1. Equal pay for equivalent work
  2. Recruitment & promotion
  3. Leadership development training & mentoring
  4. Flexible working
  5. Company culture
Every day, I advocate for diversity in media and tech, both through writing, through involvement with organizations such as Women, Action and The Media, The Women's Media Center and In This Together Media, and also by working directly with companies to address the impact of gender imbalances and gaps on their products and on women's free speech and safety.  When I talk about tactical solutions to, for example, reducing misogynistic online harassment,  corporation are willing to talk. However, institutional tolerance for harassment to the demographics of an industry is a non-starter. Suggestions, to date, that companies consider EDGE, have fallen on deaf ears.

To date, 35 companies have been EDGE certified, among them IKEA Switzerland, L'Oreal USA, Compartamos Banco and Deloitte Switzerland are now EDGE Certified.  There are SAP, which just this week signed on, is the first and only software company with a presence in Silicon Valley to do so.

The EDGE process involves understanding the unique issues and circumstances of the company undergoing certification and then designing specific people, process, systems and product commitments to achieve desirable results.

"To measure something is to change it. It helps us to see what is actually happening in a workplace. The numbers tell a story that's based on fact, not perception," explains Beyer.  "Inequity is invisible because it is a function of unconscious bias. If we were conscious of the bias -- if we could perceive it, we would see it. This is why getting a third party evaluation makes sense."

The funny thing is how much resistance there is to something that makes such compelling and clear business sense.  Study after study shows the positive, effects of closing gender gaps and increasing diversity. It effects everything from improving decision making to increasing profitability.

There are many people working to address diversity, of all sorts. Organizations like 2020 Women on Boards, which publishes a gender diversity index and Catalyst, which produces statistical research and is dedicated to helping create more inclusive workplaces.  In some countries, government policy is mandating corporate changes, such as in Germany, which instituted a 30% women on boards rule.  What I like about EDGE is that it is a pragmatic, integrated, step-by-step process. EDGE provides a mechanism for companies not only to show the seriousness of their commitment to closing gender gaps, but to then put their money and time where their mouths are. Tech and media companies, in particular, because they so disproportionately shape imaginations and narratives.