March marks Women’s History Month again, but I am not celebrating. Stories and images of courageous women of the past are everywhere. These women deserve recognition — they fought hard to advance equal rights and access for the majority of the U.S. population who happen to have been born female. Yet in 2016, I find it increasingly difficult to talk about celebrating for one month a year when there are so few signs of positive progress to improve the lives of women. How can we better harness attention, social change innovations, and sustainable economy principles to advance gender equality?

Acknowledge Limited Signs of Progress

There are a few signs of incremental change that have been widely reported as positive marks of progress:

  • Women’s representation in Congress has crept up, from 11 percent in 2001 to 19.4% in 2015.  (While roughly 52 percent of the American electorate is made up of women.)
  • The number of women running Fortune 500 companies reached an all-time high: 5 percent in 2015. (While roughly 45% of the Fortune 500 workforce is made up of women.)
  • Widely recognized pronouncements saying that accelerating gender equality is necessary for a company, or a national economy, to thrive and that what companies and nations have been doing is inadequate.  (For examples, see McKinsey & Company’s research and reports on gender, and the U.N. Secretary General’s opening statement to the Commission on the Status of Women, which marked two decades since the Beijing Declaration in 1995.)

Progress on gender parity is simply too little and too slow to celebrate. (Or, as the U.N. Secretary-General put it: “unacceptably slow.”)

Acknowledge Glaring Gender Gaps Persist

The gender pay and unpaid labor gaps may be the best-known gender-inequality problems in business, but problems related to attitudes, power, and access to resources persist across business sectors.

  • Women make up only 24 percent of senior executive positions at the largest companies.
  • Women make up only 19 percent of corporate board seats at the largest companies.
  • Only 11% of top business school case studies have a female protagonist.
  • The incidence of outsider equity (venture capitalists, angel investors, business investors), to female ownership, is negative and statistically significant, although the growth in the number, revenues and employment of women-owned firms over the past decade is increasing at a rate 1-1/2 times the national average.
  • Multiple studies indicate both men and women exhibit an unconscious gender bias in preference for men in traditionally male fields such as science, technology, finance, or business entrepreneurship.

Rather than celebrate advancements in the distant past, what is needed is an understanding of the economic, social and political forces that keep gender inequitable conditions in place and a commitment to challenging them.

Promote the Business and Social Impact Case for Gender Equity

There is a robust and growing case for moving aggressively on the gender-equity front. It is well documented that gender-diverse companies show higher profitability while gender-balanced economies are consistently linked with peace and prosperity. (Sources: Bloomberg, UBS and The Economist’s Daily Chart, The glass ceiling index)
Gender diversity

The appeal of The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index lies in its mix of indicators, which include classics such as wage gap and share of women in positions of power, as well as practical family and social support benefits such as child-care costs and paid leave. (The United States, by the way, shows an index of 57 out of 100 for a rank of 19 among developed countries.)

Since 2012, studies of Fortune 1500 companies indicate the number of women on a corporate board correlates with a firm’s sustainability performance, or what is referred to in the investment community as environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance.

In short, gender equality, when measured by a combination of business, environment and social impact indicators, is a win-win-win for triple-bottom-line companies and their communities. Spread the word.

Enough Talk. Time for Action.

WBON is committed to being aware of both personal and systemic gender imbalances and openly talking about them so that we can work together more effectively, men and women, to re-balance in our businesses, our workplaces, and in all parts of society.

Join the WBON Policy Committee as we act collectively to harness attention, social change innovations, and sustainable economy principles to advance gender equality.


Photo credit: Jacqueline Cochran, Women in Science photo stream, Smithsonian Institution Flickr

Pat Heffernan is a board member of American Sustainable Business Council, co-chair of the ASBC Working Group for Women, and co-chair of the WBON Public Policy Committee. This blog post is adapted from a post recently published on the ASBC blog.