Ridding Companies of Gender Asbestos

No business, large or small, can afford to ignore the growing economic power and potential of women in the 21st century, but when it comes to gender balance we are only half way there, says Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, a gender consultancy. The reason? Toxic “gender asbestos” is still hidden in the walls and cultures of many big corporations and needs to be routed out.

Efforts to fix the problem are often well-meaning but inept.  Many corporations “are focusing efforts on women – what women don’t have or what women don’t know – as opposed to saying ‘what is the matter with our company that it is unable to attract, retain and promote the majority of today’s educated talent’ and identify who is responsible and accountable for dealing with the problem,”  says Wittenberg Cox. “ It is not what women need to learn but what men need to learn.”

Wittenberg-Cox, who was recognized by Elle Magazine as one of the Top 40 Women Leading Change, is one of one of some 80-plus scheduled speakers at DLDWomen, a conference in Munich June 29-30 organized by Burda Media. The conference, which focuses on women’s influence on developments in technology, media, markets and society, is expected to attract 500 women in business and the arts.

Wittenberg-Cox makes a strong case for why corporations need to change. Women, she argues, represent half the talent and half the market and bringing them into management results in better corporate governance and a better bottom line.

The website of her consultancy, 20-first, highlights studies that show that companies with significant numbers of top female managers do better, when it comes to innovation and accountability and make more profits, relative to sector competitors. A report by Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with three of more women on the board perform significantly better than those with the fewest. A Kinsey report had similiar findings: those companies with the most women on their senior team have superior growth in equity, operational results and share price. If at least a third of the senior team is made up of women, then companies outperform those with no women on nine criteria of organizational excellence, according to the Kinsey report.

These type of economic arguments resonate better with the business world, which is “not necessarily set up to be representative or nice,” says Wittenberg-Cox, who lives in Paris and has French, Canadian and Swiss citizenship.” It makes it an awful lot more convincing and more urgent if they understand gender balance as an economic opportunity.”

There are other powerful arguments.  Some 60% of university graduates in almost every field are now women so if corporations are primarily hiring men they are limiting themselves to 40% of the talent pool, “a guarantee of failure,” she says. “Most leaders understand this.”

It is also a market issue – women are earning more, have more purchasing power and an increasingly influence in an ever expanded reach of sectors, particularly in emerging  markets, so connecting with women consumers is increasingly important, says Wittenberg-Cox, who wrote two books and started her consultancy while raising  two children,  aged 18 and 15.

But even when companies recognize why they need to change they don’t always understand how to go about it. Too many believe the issue is at the top – -the so-called glass ceiling. But the problem is present at every  level. Everytime there is a promotion there is a percentage drop in the number of women climbing the corporate ladder, she says, “so the problem is more retaining and developing a good strong pipeline.”  She is trying to change this by getting a full day on the agenda of the executive committees of many large corporations and using the time to explain what they need to do to transform their companies into more gender-balanced businesses.

Wittenberg-Cox, is the author of “HOW Women Mean Business, A Step by Step Guide to Profiting from Gender Balanced Business and co-author of WHY Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergency of Our Next Economic Revolution. Her first book was awarded the MANPOWER Best Book of the Year prize in 2009 and was selected as business book of the year by Conference Board Review in 2010.

“What I am proud of most is that over the last decade I have contributed to shifting this from a women’s issue to a business issue and moved the gender balance issue into the right circles for the first time – the executive committee,” she says.