Women's Equality Day: interview with Shelley Zalis
Interview by Sangeeta Haindl
Equality in the workplace and gender pay is a stubborn issue, one which hit the UK headlines on 23 August, when research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed that women earn 18 percent less than men on average, and that the gap balloons after women have children, raising the prospect that mothers are missing out on pay rises and promotions.
This is all very timely and relevant, with Women’s Equality Day which took place on 26 August. To bring these issues to the forefront, I had the opportunity to speak to Shelley Zalis, founder and CEO of The Female Quotient and the creator of The Girls’ Lounge, a leading global organisation working towards women’s workplace equality. A recent article in The Huffington Post by David Sable, CEO of Y&R, calls Shelley Zalis’ “the most articulate and creative thinker on the subject of inequality”.
Zallis told me that she will be putting the ‘men’ into ‘femenism’ on Women’s Equality Day, as she strongly believes that women alone cannot make gender equality happen, that this is not a female issue, but it’s a social and an economic one, where both men and women need to work together to create change. Here’s what Zalis (SZ) had to say:
Two of the world leaders now are women, with the strong possibilities of a third female leader on the horizon. Do you think by having three women global leaders will significantly speed-up in advancing equality and equal opportunity in the workplace?
We want to see "her" on currency, statues, in the boardroom and as the President of the United States. Female role models are important and inspire women to be their best self. Having three female global leaders speaks loud and clear about the progress we are making around equality throughout the world. My hope is that these women embrace every opportunity to support and create programs that speed up the advancement of equality. We always speak about women being incredible collaborators and I know these women will not only be inspirational but will work to create the change we all want to see in their respective countries, and around the globe.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle for equality in the workplace today?
The biggest problem is the “messy middle” where women are opting out of the management track. We start out in entry positions in select industries at 50/50, but as we rise, the ranks lose women as they gain responsibility at work and in life. Men haven’t been trained about managing women through this process to keep them in the career progression pipeline.
If we can fix the messy middle, we can get beyond the gender issues and begin to inform and educate people and companies about the benefits of a gender balanced company.
The “See Her To Be Her” initiative is about increasing the visibility of women in prominent positions throughout a company to inspire others, to become a key driver towards equality. Does this have impact?
I always say, ‘you can’t be her if you can’t see her.’ I share this mantra because I know it to be true— women need to be visible in order to be valued and become equal. Gender equality depends largely on equal visibility that creates equal opportunity.
It’s important that we increase visibility of women at all levels within a corporation. Equality is not only a good thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do. Diversity is good for business. The economics of equality are clear: a recent McKinsey Power of Parity Study found that the global annual GDP could increase by as much as 26% if women and men play an identical role in the labor market by 2025. That’s an additional $12 trillion in the world’s economy!
However, adding women shouldn’t be about filling a quota. Equality for the sake of equality is good but we need to consider the feminine mindset and skill set that is needed at the table and throughout an organization. We need to bring our feminine archetypes to develop stronger businesses.
We are working with many companies that have made equality in the workplace part of their corporate DNA. Some of our corporate partners include AOL, Bloomberg, Facebook, Google, L’Oreal, MediaLink, NBC Universal, and Viacom, among others.
The gender pay gap is a hot issue and with emerging economies will this need to be a cultural mind shift, too?
Technology is an enabler today so there is no excuse for the wage gap. Corporate leaders should all do the Mark Benioff move, which is to push the button and fix it. It might pinch at first, but moving forward and doing the right thing will help organizations retain and attract the best talent.
Absolutely, there needs to be a cultural mind shift. Even in places that are the most progressive, there is still an unconscious bias toward women that we need to evolve and change if we are to truly make progress.
If companies want the best talent they will need to show that they are willing to pay for it. Why shouldn’t people receive equal pay for equal work? It is also important to note that Millennials are the purpose-driven generation and they want to work for companies that do the right thing. A mandate by the government in many ways is also a mandate by Millennials, too.
How can we as women do more to support each other in the workplace?
If we could have done it alone, we would have by now. A woman alone can be powerful but when you engage “the power of the pack,” we are unstoppable. Change can only be accomplished when we all work in unison towards a goal. If we mentor and collaborate with each other, we can make great strides towards achieving workplace equality.
You talk about the “unconscious bias”. What is it and how do we address it?
Unconscious bias refers to the bias that we are unaware of, and which happens automatically. We need to realize if we hire all the same people all the time, it’s not good for business. Change requires a cultural shift to attract best talent. Once we are aware, we can work to counteract it and create new mindsets that are more equality focused.
The Girls’ Lounge has successfully built a strong community advocating for equality, becoming “the” destination at more than 50 conferences around the world. So, where next on the map? Who do you want to collaborate with next?
The Girls’ Lounge has evolved from a moment to a movement connecting over 7500 corporate women to one another around the world. We are ‘the’ destination for women at every major industry tradeshow.
We are currently collaborating with the ANA (Association of National Advertisers) AFE (Alliance for Family Entertainment) on their #SeeHer campaign to standardize an equality metric to measure the authentic portrayal of women and girls in media and advertising. We also have a segment on the Bloomberg portal called Walk the Talk, where we will be equating gender equality with financial performance.
You have been described as “the most articulate and creative thinker on the subject of inequality”. What inspires your thinking?
When purpose meets passion, you are unstoppable. At this stage in my career I want to give back with generosity and work to resolve the issues that I faced as I rose through the ranks. It’s important to note that a movement is not made by one women, it’s a collection of us all working together. Our legacy will be the shift in the equality landscape that we create together.
Photo Credit: The Girl's Lounge