In the United States, we are on the eve of potentially electing our first female president. Yet as much progress as we’ve made, we still have a long way to go to achieve gender parity – especially in business. It’s likely that a woman reading this today will soon be passed over for a deserved promotion or miss out on funding for a game-changing idea.
The state of women in the workplace is well-tread ground, and the statistics remain bleak. Only 21 Fortune 500 companies have a woman CEO. Between 2010 and 2015, only one out of every 10 global venture dollars went to startups with at least one female founder. And earlier this week, LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company released its latest survey finding women are still underrepresented at every corporate level and hold less than 30% of roles in senior management.
What the statistics ultimately tell us is that, as women, we face challenges big and small because the system we operate in was built predominantly by and for our male colleagues. But behind these numbers I see — and feel every day — a surge of great optimism. Because the keys to the solution are at our disposal.
We all play a role in solving this problem, and we’re moving in the right direction. Complicated problems require complex solutions, but the way I see it, there is a solution if we take responsibility in three key ways.
My mother is a self-made Filipina woman who worked her way up to become a well-respected principal of a school system. As a young woman, she earned multiple degrees and accolades, including a United Nations scholarship to Yale University.
On my first visit to Yale, when I was 14, I walked halls filled with old photographs of men in black suits. One lone woman stood among them: my mother, in a white dress, looking so bright and brave. That’s how I learned she was the first woman to earn a graduate degree from the Yale School of Forestry. It gave me a whole new perspective on her, and how hard she must have worked to get there.
The journey toward gender parity doesn’t mean one prescriptive path for every woman to follow or one definitive list to check off. Each of us can make it her own—what you do may be different from what your co-worker does, or your friend, or even your mother. What matters is that you’re doing something, anything, that pushes you beyond your comfort zone.
My mother found her own way, and encouraged my sisters and me to carve out our own paths. Many times when I attend events it’s just me, a 4’11 Asian woman, in a sea of people who look and sound different than I do. I’ve developed some techniques to navigate the room. For every event I attend, I have a rule: Introduce myself to three people, then I can go home.
I can’t wave a magic wand to change what the room looks like, but I’ve found a way to make it work for me. And that’s what I urge you to do, too. Find the way that works for you, and you’ll inspire others to do the same.
In addition to having a responsibility to ourselves, we also have a responsibility to each other. For women that means when you climb a rung on the ladder, or walk through a door of opportunity, you have a responsibility to bring other deserving women along with you.
I’m proud to say GE Ventures had the most female venture capitalists of the 812 corporate, private, and accelerator funds surveyed last year. But frankly, I’m less excited about the fact that the women on my team happen to be women than I am about the fact that they are excellent at their jobs.
I urge you, as women, to share the lessons you’ve learned so that others can learn from your mistakes; it’s just as valuable as sharing your successes. Early in my career, I made what I consider to be one of my biggest mistakes. When I had my first child, Christopher, I didn’t give myself a break at all. I took only two days of maternity leave. My dad flew in to stay with my son, and as soon as he landed,I charged right back into the office.
That was a terrible idea. My body had yet to heal, and my mind was still reeling from the hormonal surge. The worst part was that I missed out on time with my son that I‘ll never get back and I sent a bad signal to women who were planning to take maternity leave, and men who wanted to take their paternity leave. People in leadership positions need to model that it’s OK to take time for yourself and your family. Otherwise, others feel like they can’t, either.
We can’t afford to leave talented women on the sidelines. Our competitive advantage depends on leveraging all of our smartest talent, male or female. That means that gender parity isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s an issue that affects all of us. That means that men have to be part of the solution, too.
In my experience, I have found most of my male colleagues are completely willing to be allies, if we let them. It’s no longer ahospitable environment for people who are outwardly and intentionally sexist: that kind of person is an endangered species. I truly believe that most of the men I work with and have worked with are well-intentioned men who just want do the right thing. My suspicion is that overt misogynists are becoming increasingly rare.
Instead, you’re more likely to encounter what I like to call accidental misogynists. A man who is in favor of all of the right policy positions when it comes to gender equality, but isn’t as aware and as well read on gender issues as women are. He has no desire to be part of the system that’s holding so many of us back, yet he doesn’t see the little ways in which he’s being harmful, like invisible barriers he doesn’t see, and the unconscious biases he’s failing to challenge.
I have two sons. From their point of view, women can do absolutely anything men can. I’m so proud of them, but I tell them they have a responsibility to make sure that society doesn’t put barriers in women’s way. I tell them to be aware of the ways the playing field isn’t even yet, and that all of us — men and women — must do our part to level it. Because, while it’s great to have fewer men be part of the problem, we need a lot more men to become an active part of the solution.
Every time you find yourself with a seat at the table or a voice in the conversation, use it for good. Use it to point out unconscious bias when you see it. Use it to point out a that your pool of candidates doesn’t reflect the diverse world we live in. Use it to remind your colleagues that talent comes in all kinds of packages, and that women’s ideas and perspectives are an enormous and necessary value-add to all our teams. The way forward is a diverse chorus of voices speaking up for diversity.