Grassroots efforts to provide outlets for gender bias concerns have taken various forms, such as the new workplace-rating website InHerSight that Marissa recently blogged about, and the more established online group MomsRising. Recently, I met a woman – herself a senior manager in a large corporation – who is advocating an approach that might appeal to those women and men interested in effecting change in their own companies but fear being branded a troublemaker or activist. Elba Pareja-Gallagher is the founder of ShowMe50.org, a new nonprofit launched on March 31st whose mission is to give employees in corporate America practical tools to strive for gender equality. Its motto and mission is ambitious: 50% women in senior leadership positions in the largest U.S. corporations. Curious, I decided to interview Elba to find out more about ShowMe50 and what she was trying to achieve. Below are highlights of our conversation.
What was your personal inspiration to start an organization focused on achieving gender equality in corporate America?
I came up with the idea because I have spent my entire career in corporate America at two Fortune 50 companies. The obstacles that women face in rising to leadership positions are complex and complicated. I took two years to study the issue and came up with what I think is a pragmatic approach that I would be comfortable taking to my own company. The mission of our organization is to achieve 50% at the senior levels in S&P 500 companies, and we are trying to do it in a collaborative, non-threatening way. I think there are fantastic opportunities for career development and fulfillment in large companies. I myself have had numerous careers within one company, from one part of the world to another. I have spent many years working with high level executives, and I know what the barriers are. I believe in fixing giant companies which are the drivers of economic prosperity.
What is the niche that your organization is trying to fill?
We provide the tools to show employees how to take action in a collaborative, non-threatening way. We developed seven toolkits for employees to use to launch their own coalition. We want to make it as simple as possible to start, because everyone is so busy. We teach them how to find out about their company’s gender representation; how to identify gender bias, what it looks like, sounds like and feels like; how to talk about gender bias, because that still feels like a taboo topic. We teach people that talking about gender bias is, for example, talking about the fact that Director level and above positions are not being posted for all employees to apply for, and other policies that create barriers for women to rise. We teach people how to talk about gender stereotypes, such as the reactions to how men lead versus how women lead, and the double standards that hurt women.
Isn’t it well known already what the barriers are, and what the solutions and best practices are? Organizations like Catalyst have been working on changing companies from within for many years, and there are diversity initiatives, affinity groups, working groups in large companies. What is it that sets your approach apart?
True, there are many organizations out there working on gender equality in the workplace. For example, Catalyst does tremendous research and publishes best practices. Catalyst has been around since 1962 working on these issues. It is funded by large corporations – the same corporations that are not implementing those best practices. Catalyst tries to influence corporations from the top, such as the CEOs, the formal diversity councils. And those corporations choose not to implement all the necessary changes to their policies and practices. They have the prerogative to decide what policies to change or keep. Trying to change from the top down only goes so far, and it depends on openness of the culture throughout the company. What I’ve found is that companies won’t voluntarily change from the top.
My organization is different. We teach people the facts first, and then we teach people how to influence other people. We teach how to speak with your boss, your coworker, and how to approach HR together to ask them to change a certain policy. We draw from the social science on effective communication and social influence. We’re offering career development and professional development, focusing on communication skills and influencing skills, with the purpose of driving change in women’s representation in senior leadership. We’re talking about a model based on coordinated social pressure from bottom, networking with coworkers specifically on this issue. And we are not just targeting women. It is crucial to include men. Men and women have to be in a coalition together. The reality is that many men are negatively impacted by the same forces that are holding women back. Our approach is to enable employees to build coalitions to make a business case to HR about the need for gender parity.
Is coalition-building essential?
Yes, one of the key tools is building a coalition, a network of colleagues, committed to working together to nudge the organization along. That’s why our approach is focused on coalition-building, identifying influencers, and leveraging one’s social capital and network in the workplace. It is really important to build the network in a conscious and strategic way, and to have power in numbers.
Don’t HR folks within the companies already know the best practices?
Yes, they do. But HR is constrained. They may disagree with a lot of the company’s policies. But unfortunately the higher levels don’t prioritize policy changes and HR doesn’t have the power or ability to change the culture of the company. Maybe HR wants to implement the best-in-class measures, but they don’t have the resources, or their initiatives get cut down [in terms of budget]. HR’s resources are limited given the company’s priorities, which are immediate issues like making quarterly earnings. The long term economic value of gender parity doesn’t get the attention it deserves. We want to bring the business case for equal representation of women in leadership to the forefront.
How is your organization funded?
We just launched on March 31st and we are seeking funding. We have a plan for sustainable funding. Our initial plans are to cultivate individual donations – including from high net worth women — and apply for grants from foundations. We would eventually like to develop more training material that we could license to organizations and create a database of anonymous feedback from women within companies that we could sell back to companies about why women leave.
Does ShowMe50 have corporate sponsors?
No. We are not funded by the corporations. My work for ShowMe50 is separate from my day job.
Are you trying to implement your approach at your workplace?
Yes, I am working on it. I am following this exact approach in my company right now: Gather facts about the company, make sure you have the facts about the policies and practices, the representation of women, the ways gender bias shows up in the business. Then you’ve got to talk to your boss, your coworkers, and your HR, and look for ways to apply the pressure.
What challenges have you encountered?
People are afraid. It takes a lot of conversations and persistence, and a few brave individuals willing to start the conversations. How do you talk about a problem given that it is taboo? Maybe they are afraid to talk about it at work at first, so at least they can start online, see our videos, see the materials and start thinking about it in the safety of their home. It’s not easy, but it is time to do this. You can see there is momentum recently, given all the coverage in the media about gender equity in the workplace. Now it’s time to bring those conversations into the workplace to create the pressure from the bottom up to change the policies and practices that hold women back.