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Cowboys vs. Conveners: Catalyzing Gender Equality

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Last week two powerful politicians in Europe took a stand for workingwomen everywhere. European Union justice commissioner Viviane Reding's released draft legislation mandating public companies have 40% of women on supervisory boards by 2020. And EU parliamentarian and committee chair Sharon Bowles postponed a hearing to fill a seat on the European Central Bank board until women candidates are presented. Whether or not one agrees with their solutions or their tactics, given just how far away we are from parity -- and the alarming data indicating we're trending backward in many places -- we need leaders willing to attack this from every angle, every platform. But critically, any legislative stick must be paired with the incentive carrot.

Consistent and persistent gender inequality still exists because leadership to date has failed to address the complicated structural issues perpetuating the problem. The reason corporate and government leadership around the world is 'too male, too pale' is certainly not because we lack talented women on our planet. Women may hold less than 10% of leadership roles globally, but they comprise 50% of the population and are more than 50% of the college graduates in the developed world: we clearly have plenty of experienced, capable women across cultural, generational, ethnic backgrounds to fill half the working ranks to upper-echelons of corporations and governments.

Baroness Mary Goudie, member of the UK House of Lords and Vital Voices board member, was refreshingly frank in her comments to me on this: "It is absolute rubbish to say there aren't qualified people. That is often said by those who have power and do not want to share it. There is the talent and we need to talk about how you get to the talent."

So if we do not have a dearth of female talent, why the pervasive gross under-representation in workplace leadership worldwide? I believe it's not really a supply problem at the core; it's a demand problem -- and one that should not have to be settled by regulations and quotas. Big sticky problems of this scale must be tackled by leaders who convene-and-catalyze, working across silos, bringing together all the players to identify blockages and to proactively remedy them.

The John Wayne and Lone Ranger era of 'command-and-control' leadership has largely ridden into the sunset. In today's wildly interconnected and rapidly changing world, 'convene-and-catalyze' leadership is crucial to create systems change, sustainable change.

The 30 Percent Club in the UK is an excellent model of this to be lauded and applauded; and their tactics are adaptable for other large-scale change initiatives. Two people, Helena Morrissey from the private sector and the aforementioned Baroness Mary Goudie from government, teamed up in 2010 to catalyze change in a unique way:

• Like Commissioner Reding and Sharon Bowles, they focused on the hardest nut to crack -- the board level -- since change there can shift things for women down the pipelines to the frontlines.
• They enrolled champions from the business community -- read, male CEOs -- creating a diversity initiative that is actually diverse.
• Working outward from this initial core group, Helena and Mary created a new shared 'we' from once disparate groups, disconnected leaders. "What the 30% Club is trying to do is coordinate -- there is power in the group, the community," Helena told me. "One of the problems was that [prior] efforts did not reinforce each other so we are trying to blaze a trail to galvanize a more joined-up response." That joined-up response brought together corporations, government leaders, executive search firms, women's professional networks and activists.
• They framed the problem not as a special interest issue or a women's issue but about better governance, better business outcomes. Refusing to be mired down debating the business case for diversity, Helena flips the burden of proof onto naysayers: "No one can come up with something that disproves the position that a better balanced board makes better decisions."
• Since providers of capital drive behavior in capitalist economies, the 30 Percent Club also focused on "throwing down the gauntlet to investment groups" said Helena, herself CEO of Newton Investment Management's £47B fund. Starting small, Helena gathered 11 investor firms together to find common ground and recently hosted more than 100 representatives from the fund management community to discuss their new 'best practices guideline' helping investors engage with their portfolio companies on gender equality.
• Perhaps most importantly, as represented in their name the 30 Percent Club set clear, measurable targets: a 'tipping point' of 30% female representation on FTSE 100 boards by 2015 with a near term goal of 20% by the end of this year... and are hoping to see the effort go global.

While certainly not the only model, their tactics are already proving to be effective -- albeit within a regulatory environment that is simultaneously applying external pressure.

With rumblings worldwide about leadership of companies and countries failing their stakeholders, the moment is ripe for this type of 'convene-and-catalyze' leadership and I see other great examples around the world using this model in efforts to close the gender gap. In France, the dynamic Veronique Morali is now helming Deauville's Women's Forum whose CEO Champions, supported by Ernst & Young CEO Jim Turley and Renault-Nissan's Carlos Ghosn among others, have committed to 6 principles driving progress and accountability to women's advancement in the private sector. I am heading to Jordan in a few weeks for the launch of The Global Thinkers Forum convening diverse leaders from around the Middle East and am honored to be part of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders' Closing the Gender Gap task force harnessing bright minds around the world working from their spheres of influence.

In the U.S. we have more -- and more established -- women's leadership organizations, think tanks and networks than most countries. These great efforts are relatively fragmented and disparate but some leaders are not flying solo: Susan Stautberg, founder of Belizean Grove and Women Corporate Directors (WCD), is now growing WCD exponentially by bringing on cofounders and chapter leaders globally. Down the road from Susan in NYC Janice Reals Ellig, past president of the NY Women's Forum told me "we've been studying this to death -- enough studying" and titled her recent article in Boards & Directors magazine 'Boardroom Parity in the US by 2022.' Janice and her colleagues at The Women's Forum of New York have created a database of board-eligible women and are hosting the Corporate Board Symposium this week - featuring a discussion with founders of the UK's 30 Percent Club.

And in an interesting new development, the Thirty Percent Coalition recently launched in the U.S., the first time institutional investors and women's groups have joined forces here. Their "Critical Mass Campaign" challenges US-based public companies to have a minimum of 30 percent of multicultural women on their boards by end of 2015. Three champions -- ION's cofounders Vicki Kramer and Toni Wolfman along with Charlotte Laurent-Ottomane -- are building another wide tent with 43 members from corporations, investors, and national women's organizations.

As with any change initiative, they have to step gingerly to avoid turf toes and have been rebuffed by some gender equality organizations not yet supporting a collaborative effort. It is my hope that these change initiatives, like others so critically needed in our world, can get beyond egos of leaders stuck in the tired command-and-control Lone Ranger style.

As the 30 Percent initiatives and other great collaborative models demonstrate, creating a more inclusive 'we' is a more powerful pathway to sustainable change.