Real Leaders

How a Gender Equality Stamp of Approval Could Impact Business

Gender inequality remains pervasive in the workplace. It’s in every industry and on every level, and the uncomfortable conversation it requires to improve it is too often ignored. But there’s a new movement to do something tangible to address the shift that society needs to make on this issue.

What if, before interacting with a company — whether that’s as a consumer or employee — you could find out what they stand for, including gender parity in the workplace? It’s not a novel idea. Fair-trade certification has been giving a stamp of approval to companies who utilize equitable trade practices for years. Benefit corporations have created a new standard and mark for socially conscious business practices. LEED certifications show companies have exceptional environmental standards.

There may be a new addition to that list: The Economic Dividends for Gender Equality (EDGE) Certification, a global business certification for gender equality, which was announced officially at the World Economic Forum in 2011.

EDGE recently announced a partnership with IFC (part of the World Bank Group), the International Labor Organization, and the UN Global Compact to launch the “She Works” initiative to advance women’s employment in the private sector. EDGE, which is already in 60 companies in 29 countries and across 14 industries, is expecting much more adoption now that it is a global standard. Deloitte and Ikea in Switzerland were among the first companies, and L’Oreal recently announced it was the first US company to achieve certification.

“Gender equality is the right and the smart thing to do,” said Iris Bohnet, director of Harvard’s Women and Public Policy Program. “Often, gender gaps, for example, in hiring or promotion, are the result of unintentional biases that lead employers to base their decisions on stereotypes rather than individual performance, thus hurting productivity and creating inequity. EDGE enables companies to identify and weed out such mistakes.”

In the larger conversation about gender equality in the workplace, women — and men — are demanding that:

  • We examine the fact that men make up the vast majority of founders and executives
  • We refuse to turn our backs on sexual harassment
  • We leave behind the stereotypes of traditional male and female roles
  • We make sure women and men are paid the same amount for the exact same work

Why you should care

Women earned, on average, 78 cents on the dollar that men earned in 2013, according to the US Census Bureau. That wide disparity has essentially remained the same since 2001. The Institute for Women’s Policy Researchestimates it could take until 2056 to reach parity, based on the current trajectory.

One study from Harvard found that as women have more children, their pay suffers more. For men, it’s the opposite. Research over the years (including this recent survey by Fortune) have found that women, when portraying the same characteristics as males, are often called “abrasive,” “bossy,” or given more negative feedback about their personalities, whereas men are seen as confident and motivated.

Nevertheless, the Paycheck Fairness Act — which would make it more difficult for employers to pay women less and make it easier for people to sue on account of that — was blocked in the US Senate earlier this month. Despite the fact that a majority of Senators (52) voted for the measure, it was blocked again because the Senate’s minority Republican leadership used a filibuster, which would have required 60 votes to overcome. It was the fourth time since 2011 that Senate Republicans have organized to block the legislation.

A certification like the type that EDGE has implemented is used in areas where business meets social issues. It’s been successful in cases such as the butterfly logo for GMO-free food and the little bunny for makeup that hasn’t been tested on animals.

With EDGE, Oldin said, this new standard sends a clear signal to top talent in the organization and potential employees.

“It also tells a story to the shareholders, that the company gets it, a story of corporate governance,” she said. “It is no longer cosmetics. It is an authentic sign of commitment.”

EDGE is the first and only certification of its kind, and it took a long time to develop. Through tests over a period of several years, the team came to a final assessment that assesses such things as company practices and policies, company culture, and retention and hiring rates.

An EDGE consultant guides companies through the platform, and then the company is audited by a third party. It measures what the company thinks they do, what their records indicate they actually do (by assessing those policies and frameworks within the organization), and comparable statistics for their business type. They receive results compared to a global standard, and then the company can start to build an action plan with short term and long term goals.

Measuring real change — hiring numbers, retention rates, company testimonials and ratings — takes a while, so EDGE makes sure companies know this is a process, and everyone is starting on a different level. Short term goals may include gender bias and stereotype training, Oldin said. Every two years, the company must get recertified.

“The certification can be the signal the company needs to show that they are authentic in their commitments to gender equality,” said Maria Oldin, managing director of EDGE Foundation. “This is regardless if [it] is a corporation that is already performing very well or if the company is struggling and know they need to do something about it. At least then they are seriously starting the journey to change.”

Five years ago, Oldin added, this was just a thought. Many people questioned the value of it. Now, though, she’s hearing positive feedback from shareholders, consumers, and employees.

About 60 new companies around the world are in talks to start moving forward with the certification process. As for tech giants with the big gender problems? Oldin said EDGE is in discussion with big players in Silicon Valley.

“They know they have to do something. Shareholders and talent and consumers are getting tired of fancy words,” she said.

Moving forward

Progress starts with transparency. More tech companies (and businesses in other industries) are releasing their data about their own gender gaps, some even committing to changing the statistics in years to come.

Yes, some industries have less of a pay gap than others. Well-known Harvard University scholar Claudia Goldin looked at research and broke the wage gap down by industry for the New York Times earlier this year. She wrote in a paper on the subject that occupations that reward employees for long hours, face-to-face communication, and on-call hours such as law, medicine, and business, often have the widest pay gaps.

And research from various sources provides several different statistics — Pew Research, for instance, said that in 2012 women actually made 84% of what men made.

Whatever the percentages, anything less than 100% parity should be unacceptable. In tech (where the pay gap is less than other fields) this presents an opportunity — perhaps the gender gap could be narrowed more quickly as we try to get more women interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields.

Women are making progress, particularly in fields like pharmaceuticals, according to Goldin’s research. But pay gap is not the only issue. Gender equality in the workplace involves better benefits, maternity leave policies, and open conversations about all these issues to make certain that stereotypes, harassment, and biases don’t continue to flourish.

Anti-discrimination laws are important, but they don’t change cultural stereotypes. “Leaning in” is great, but the phrase is now so overused it has lost some of its meaning. Telling women to ask for more money upfront in interviews is worth doing, but it won’t change the bias on the other side of the desk.

It’s heartening to witness women standing up for their rights on social media and in the news — and even more so to see men commit to helping make change happen faster. Because let’s be honest: real change isn’t going to happen unless men take part in the discussion. Since so many companies are run by males, they must participate in the movement for gender equality.

A stamp of approval is no silver bullet, either. But it is another step in the right direction.

This story first appeared in TechRepublic


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