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Shawn Brodersen

The Power of Imagery for Women Empowerment
Shawn Brodersen Vice President | July 5, 2018

"I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard...we cannot succeed when half of us are held back."

 ―Malala Yousafzai

When asked to write a piece on gender diversity in the workplace, I confess that at first, I found myself a bit tongue-tied. As a man, what could I possibly add to the debate on women empowerment that was authentic and meaningful? I have never walked in a woman’s shoes. But then I realized that was as good a place to start as any. The fact is that I am aware of my position of privilege. I have never been judged or faced prejudice because of my gender. I’ve never had to feel like a voiceless minority in board meetings or in the tech world. My perspective on the realities women face today and women empowerment will perhaps never be 100% accurate. But privilege comes with responsibility, and I recognize that things need to change about women empowerment. Men like me need to play their part as allies and agents of change to create a fairer world and fuel women empowerment.

I believe that starting from ground zero — an admission that while we can partially empathize, we will never fully understand women’s experiences — is our way of signaling that we are ready to listen and learn. We are ready to work together to build ecosystems for gender equality, both in our professional lives and in our personal lives, that can help foster the same opportunities and platforms for women that men have enjoyed for most of modern history.

For me the process of learning about gender equality, like it usually does, began at home. I live with two incredible women – my wife, a successful vice president at her company, and our only child, a five-year-old daughter. By just listening to them, I’ve been able to witness, at close quarters, the effects of both strong female role models, and the importance of men who champion gender equality and diversity more broadly.

The Role Model Effect

While my wife and I share most household and parenting responsibilities, my job requires me to travel extensively. As a successful executive, my wife has to juggle her demanding job with her parenting responsibilities. As my daughter watches her mother rise early and commute to work, take important calls, and make critical decisions for her company, she is building her own ideas and assumptions about what women can do. She has found a role model in her mother – a loving parent who is also powerful, successful, and ambitious. It’s ‘normal’ for her. It makes me glad that my daughter looks up to someone who is defining success and gender equality on her own terms.

Here’s how I know the extent of the impact my wife’s career on our daughter. Like many little girls her age, my little one loves a good princess story. But her idea of a princess is not just a woman in a ball gown and tiara wearing glass shoes. Her princess is a woman who is strong, empowered, and has a great career. She actually calls my wife’s office building ‘Mommy’s Work Castle.’ Her ideal ‘princess’ is her own mother! If my five year old can become so inspired by the woman in her life, I can only imagine the impact that seeing female CXOs and board members has on adult women and women equality. The importance of imagery is clearly visible in my five year old – if you see it, you can imagine it for yourself.

The ‘role model effect’ has been studied for years now and the data is undeniable. Seeing someone who looks like you, talks like you, and acts like you in a position of power and prestige has a strong psychological pull on you to aspire for the same. Around 83% of women in technology who wanted a C-Suite job said they had a role model. The ‘role model effect’ is felt by other social groups as well. Research shows that having one black teacher in grades 3-5 reduced the probability of a low-income black male student dropping out of high school by 39%. In the struggle for women equality, it’s also important to consider the intersectionality of other marginalized and underserved identities, whether they are around ethnicity, economic background, age, or sexual orientation. Women from minority or LGBTQ communities face even greater biases and barriers in their careers.

Seeing someone who looks like you, talks like you, and acts like you, in a position of power and prestige has a strong psychological pull on you to aspire for the same.

Representation clearly matters for women equality, yet the 2017 HN/KPMG CIO Survey reports only 9% of senior IT leadership are women, which is the same as last year. Organizations with more women at the top tend to be more gender equal. Companies that have women CEOs have a higher percentage of women on their boards. Organizations that want better women equality must start the process right from the interview room. They need to prioritize the hiring and promotion of female executives for gender equality in the workplace. When that position in senior management opens up, make the decision to interview as many skilled women as men to fill it for gender equality in the workplace; pay them as you would a male candidate to promote gender equality in the workplace; work actively toward breaking down systemic and cultural barriers that make it harder for them to do their jobs; and identify employees who are culture builders and positive change agents.

Gender balance is Good for Business

It’s no secret that the most diverse organizations are also the most profitable. The competitive advantage comes from the simple fact that diverse employees and executives bring diverse perspectives to the table, and trigger innovation and disruptive thinking. Customers too are happier to do business with companies that are staffed with people that look like them and their communities. But as of 2016, women still occupied only 16.9% of board seats in the US. As men, it’s up to us to unlearn and recalibrate ourselves for the sake of gender balance, and face up to those uncomfortable prejudices we have within ourselves.

At HCL, I am proud that we’re putting our money where our mouth is. We are working toward becoming advocates and practitioners of policies that help make our organization a fair workplace. But I recognize that we have a long way to go. There are several steps organizations can take to correct the balance:

  1. Set the tone top-down for the company.  Make gender diversity a priority for the board, CEO, and senior leadership.  Do so ‘loudly’, visibly, and consistently with action plans.  Measure and monitor success, persevere with, or pivot from, programs based on the data.  
  2. Leaders at all levels can be champions for gender diversity and inclusion.  Leadership is a club.  But it’s not an exclusive boys club.  It’s a club made up of inspirational and talented people from all walks of life and all corners of the earth. Evaluate yourself as a leader and what you are doing to be a champion for gender diversity and inclusion.
  3. Avoid imbalance at the executive level by addressing the 1% effect  (Martell et al. 1996)1 at the entry and mid-level by having a clear path of promotion and equality in attainment from the date of hire. 
  4. Recognize that unconscious bias exists and make an effort to ensure women are heard and have the opportunity to share their perspective – having diverse perspectives is good for business.

Leadership is a club. But it’s not an exclusive boys club. It’s a club made up of inspirational and talented people from all walks of life and all corners of the earth

The path to advancing workplace gender diversity is an uphill one. But by listening to and sharing our experiences, we can harness our collective strength and knowledge to create circumstances that make our workplaces welcoming to women, where the powerful and aspirational effect of seeing women leaders in action bears fruit.