Lessons Learned from Leading a Women's Group for 10 Years
10 years ago I co-founded my prior company's first women's group - and first advocacy group of any kind at the company. Only 10% of the leadership team was female and the pipeline to bring more women up through the ranks was pretty bleak. We had a lot of talented women at junior levels but stalled out mid-way to the top. And there was no clear reason why.
There was a desire among the women to gather together to discuss shared issues, even if we couldn't articulate what those exact issues were. So we started talking. It was a challenge - we worried about isolating ourselves from the men in what we all felt was a collegial and collaborative environment. We were afraid of disrupting the culture and normal ways of operating. But we knew we needed to figure this out and it wasn't an easy fix.
Yes, some of the guys made fun of us, and some women were really hesitant to opt in. And that was fine - we kept going. We tried a lot of different things over the years to meet the needs of women at so many levels, across multiple offices and functions, with differing levels of support and resistance - some outright, some more passive/aggressive. And through it all we learned some very valuable lessons:
One size does not fit all. We spent years trying to figure out the magic formula, finally realizing what we needed to do was maintain a mix of options so as many people as possible would have something they would want to participate in. That mix would include a combination of philanthropy, networking, speakers, alumni visits, book clubs, TEDTalk discussions, breakfast chats, mentor groups and cross-office meetings, depending on what the women asked for in an annual survey we did.
Senior female participation in person is VITAL. I cannot emphasize this enough, and this comes from someone who for several years was one of only 2 female Managing Directors. Many times I felt like I could not get to everyone - but getting to everyone was paramount, even if only 1-2 times per year. It is what makes each woman feel heard, valued, important in the grand scheme of things, and that is a major component of making women want to stay and figure out how to make it work.
Women plan ahead - and if they don't see women a few levels above who can make it work they will leave NOW. This was a big a-ha. This is why solutions have to go beyond what one or two women need at a given time, or what women at only one level need. Broader actions need to be taken across levels that show a company will do what it takes to keep and promote talented women at all levels and stages of their careers.
Parity needs to be reviewed on an ongoing basis. We did achieve pay and promotion parity, but it took a lot of work and ongoing scrutiny. It only takes one acquisition, or a few new hires, to start to throw the numbers back off. Continuous review is critical.
You can only go so far as a grass-roots movement. We made a ton of progress working from the ground up, but there was a limit to how far we could go without partnership with our male colleagues and buy in from leadership all the way to the most senior level. We needed people in positions of power - not the one woman but the whole leadership team - to advocate for us and be thoughtful on our behalf.
Leaders need to talk the talk AND walk the walk. Lip service without the follow through is totally transparent, and women notice. We want our leaders to value us and stand behind us, and we are loyal when companies do that. But we need to see action in participation, resources, and making the tough decisions on policies to do right by us. We need leaders to take a stand on the day to day micro-aggressions and on the bigger deal issues consistently. Silence is complicity whether that is the intention or not.
People don't take action on what a company doesn't measure. Nowadays there is a lot more talk about KPIs related to this than ever before and that is an awesome thing. There is a ton of data out there showing the benefits of investing in women in the workplace. Tracking progress on initiatives to recruit, hire, retain and promote women will help identify where each company is getting ROI on the time and resources they invest, and link them to benefits achieved by the company in parallel.
In the 10 years the women's group I co-founded has existed, the company developed longer-term senior client relationships, delivered more strategic work and achieved higher gross margins than ever before. That is no fluke. The payoff is real.