Thursday, January 28, 2016

Because It's 2015

When asked why he had put together a gender balanced Cabinet, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded "Because it's 2015". This riposte reverberated around the world and is now part of the zeitgeist.

So now it's 2016 and the World Economic Forum had a panel discussion of gender parity, or more accurately, a panel lamenting the gender gap. It's well worth watching (click here). The three most interesting panelists had different, complementary messages to deliver:

  • Trudeau emphasized the deliberate and strong effort made to attract women candidates so that there were many competent elected women to choose from when he formed his cabinet. Changing things take work.
  • Sheryl Sandberg  (author of Lean In - I really must read that book!) contributed many discouraging statistics. Did you know that boys receive higher allowances and do less work? We can only change things if we change attitudes; and that must start early.
  • Melina Gates redirected the discussion to the difficulties of women in developing countries who struggled to get basic healthcare, family planning and education. She also emphasized the need to encourage girls to consider careers in STEM: a field full of opportunity that could benefit from the unique contributions women tend to make.

All the participants bemoaned the fact that women still suffer from discriminatory attitudes, an uneven share of work in the home, less pay and less opportunity. In developed countries, and especially in developing countries. And there is a strong correlation between gender parity and economic prosperity as described in a previous post here.  

When asked for advice, a consensus recommendation was to seek out mentors/sponsors and participate in groups that support and nurture the advancement of women (lots of support for Lean In groups). Paradoxically, on the same day I watched this, I had an introductory session with my first formal mentee, arranged through the Women in Communications and Technology Association.

As my mentee and I exchanged our professional histories in our 'getting to know you' meeting, she was stunned to hear a couple of my career anecdotes.

As a new graduate with a Masters in Math, I interviewed with IBM (back in 1969 - wow was it that long ago?). They wouldn't hire me for my preferred job as a Marketing Engineer because "we don't hire women for that job." "Why?" I asked.  "Because women can't do it."  "How do you know if you've never tried?" "We just know". Back then, they weren't embarrassed about explicitly admitting their bias. And I didn't sue them.

My second experience  took place in 1988. I learned through the back door that Company X had dithered over a month before hiring me as CEO of a small joint venture: they had only interviewed me at the insistence of an enlightened executive recruiter and had had no intention to even consider a woman for the job.

So, have we made any progress? Certainly employers wouldn't dare admit their bias out loud as IBM did. In fact, today IBM vocally espouses the advancement of women. But I suspect there are still lots of Company Xs who can't envision a woman in an executive job. They just don't dare say it aloud.

My new mentee disheartened me dismally with her own anecdote. When she came back to her employer after maternity leave, she was told she had to prove herself all over again despite her years of experience. She was back to Square One.

These things shouldn't still be happening.

Because it's 2016.

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