Women get business done: Fighting for gender equity in the corporate world

UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business
Mark Unger/File

At a local gift shop near my home, charming coffee mugs and decorative office supplies adorned with phrases such as “Girl boss” and “I’m not bossy — I’m the boss” line the shelves, evidence of animated aspirations for gender equity inscribed in curly font on nearly every piece of ceramic drinkware. Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” immediately comes to mind, along with every other rousing anthem of female empowerment.

And while signs of the third wave of feminism seem, at times, omnipresent, the corporate world continues to be dominated by men. Meanwhile, ranks of creative and accomplished women remain comparatively underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline.

Gender imbalance in the workforce

According to Fortune Magazine, as of 2017, women only comprised 6.4 percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500 — a meager total of 32. And there is clear disparity in the rate of promotion between genders: According to a 2016 report by McKinsey & Company, for every 100 women promoted, 130 men are promoted.

“Women have so much to offer in the workforce — a different perspective, a different background, a different way of tackling matters,” said Pallavi Chadha, president of Berkeley Women in Business, or BWIB. “And I feel as though they’re not being given the same opportunities as men.”

BWIB is a campus business club that focuses on women’s empowerment and professional development while encouraging members to develop useful skills that can be applied in any field. According to Chadha, it also strives to increase awareness of gender inequity, which remains a largely unresolved issue in the workplace.

“We really try to … raise awareness that this is an issue, that this is still happening,” Chadha said. “A lot of people think that it’s 2017 and (that) inequality between the sexes and in the workplace is not an issue anymore.”

In fact, it was only last month that Ben Shapiro spoke on UC Berkeley’s campus, denying the gender wage gap and rejecting the notion that competitive fields such as STEM foster inequitable environments that put women at a disadvantage.

‘Men should also be involved’

But beyond simply informing individuals about the persistence of gender inequality in the corporate world, Chadha asserted that, in order to effectively transform workplace gender dynamics, men should also be involved in the conversation. Despite some engagement with the issue from the men, she said the deleterious perspective that this is a “female issue” can hinder progress toward gender equity.

“It’s important for men … to also be involved in this fight,” Chadha said. “I think that by realizing that this is something that impacts all of society, it’s a step in the right direction.”

Clubs and organizations at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business are approaching the issue with a similar methodology, encouraging broader participation in the movement toward gender equity.

“I think that by realizing that this is something that impacts all of society, it’s a step in the right direction.”

— Pallavi Chadha

According to Taylor Jordan, co-president of the Women in Leadership Club, or WIL, her club aims to promote gender equitable work environments through panels and workshops on topics such as allyship and unconscious bias.

They also host an annual Women in Leadership Conference, encouraging dialogue about the barriers women face in the workplace. This year’s conference, titled, “Power of Us: Collaborate, Inspire, Lead,” underscored the importance of collaboration between men and women to address this issue.

Kellie McElhaney, a professor in the Institute for Business and Social Impact at Haas, teaches an MBA course called “Business Case for Investing in Women.” The class focuses on the benefits that women bring to the workforce and how businesses can encourage positive change in relation to gender equity.

I attended one of her lectures, titled “The Role of Men.” Students were encouraged to bring men as guests to engage in discussion. When asked why they chose to attend, many of them said they were interested in developing their understanding of gender inequity.

“This is in no way about beating up white men,” she said at the start of her lecture, explaining how the problem of gender inequity is complicated by persistent gender norms, which remain largely fixed despite considerable change to gender roles.

She brought up the “Me, Too” movement that has recently taken the internet by storm, encouraging women to speak out about their experience with sexual assault and harassment. Although largely unrecognized, Tarana Burke pioneered the movement back in 1996. The “How I will change” trend, precipitated as a response from men, unfortunately has not received nearly as much press.

She also mentioned inventive words that have recently been introduced to dialogue on the topic, including “Mansplain,” “Manterrupt” and “Hepeated.”

This course has seen incredibly high student demand, and McElhaney won the Teaching Excellence Award after its launch.

The Center for Gender, Equity and Leadership

But while McElhaney values discussion and increased awareness of these issues, she believes it’s also important to work toward tangible change.

“We have been talking about this for a very long time … but we’re not moving the lever,” McElhaney said. “How do you bridge the gap between talk and impact?”

This is why McElhaney has recently taken on a comprehensive and groundbreaking project at Haas: the establishment of the Center for Gender, Equity and Leadership, launching Nov. 6.

The Center has already received an enthusiastic response, having received funding from the Gap Foundation and numerous individual donors.

“I think (Haas has) been a leader … but (we) haven’t tied it all together,” McElhaney said. “And that’s the beauty of this center: just looking at all that we’re doing and saying, ‘Wow, we’re doing a lot, let’s now make it a comprehensive strategy.’ ”

She explained that the Center will have a “four-fold” function, the first of which is to serve as a hub for the diverse efforts related to equity at Haas — everything from faculty research to student initiatives and groups like WIL. The Center also aims to facilitate leadership, as well as influence curriculum and integrate issues of diversity and inclusion into existing courses. The last element is called “Implementation and Action,” which involves partnering with corporations to host events and collaborations such as labs, strategy workshops and symposiums.

McElhaney explained that businesses have a lot of political leverage and that business leaders and politicians are going to have to work collaboratively to take action and prioritize different gender issues.

“We’re going to go broader than just gender and into other forms of equity,” McElhaney said, explaining how the center aims to address diverse forms of inequality related to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and gender identity.

In her lecture, McElhaney said that following the current trend, equal pay will be achieved for white women in 2059. However, for African American women, this equality is not predicted to be achieved until 2124, and for Latina women, not until 2248.

“It’s really easy to focus on diversity, and that’s just counting heads … We’re really interested in making heads count, and that’s inclusion.”

— Kellie McElhaney

Part of the strategy involves creating an environment on campus that not only has diverse representation, but that fosters inclusivity in its classrooms, organizations and events.

“It’s really easy to focus on diversity, and that’s just counting heads … We’re really interested in making heads count, and that’s inclusion.”

On personal experiences

As an assignment, students in McElhaney’s class were required to write about a personal gendered experience they had undergone. She said these anecdotes were incredibly powerfuland that they spoke to the scale and persistence of the problem.

“I was an executive a few years ago and we were doing feedback with one another,” Chadha said, talking about her own experience. “One of the feedbacks that came up for me was that I was too intimidating, I was too much of an executive. That just kind of struck me because my title actually (had) the word executive in it.”

Chadha added that the rhetoric surrounding the way women are expected to act in the workplace is reflective of the broader issue — she said employees should only be judged based on their ability to perform their job and to act as effective leaders.

McElhaney told me about some of her own personal experiences and how they formed part of her inspiration for the creation of the Center for Gender, Equity and Leadership. She said that in her first career, she was particularly discouraged by the strikingly disproportionate number of male executives.

Despite evident change left to be made, there has been significant progress.

“It’s been inspirational to see that companies are really committing to getting more diversity in their workforce.”

— Taylor Jordan

Rachel Garrison, also a co-president of WIL, explained how she was inspired by the women in leadership positions at a company she worked for, who encouraged her to get her MBA and serve as a mentor for other women in business.

And companies have been trying to be more cognizant as well.

“We’ve seen a ton of commitment from a lot of companies … and they really want to be … recruiting members of our club,” Jordan said. “It’s been inspirational to see that companies are really committing to getting more diversity in their workforce.”

Perhaps the “Girl’s Just Wanna Be CEO” mug will then portray a more promising message — that the next surge of women leaders will instead have CEO printed prominently on their desk name plate, claiming their place in the offices of Fortune 500 companies.

Contact Molly Nolan at [email protected].