International Women’s Day on 8 March created a hook for discussion about women’s rights, with its theme of gender equality in the workplace. The UN called for all actors to “Step It Up for Gender Equality towards a Planet 50-50 by 2030 by ensuring that the world of work works for all women”. Did this convoluted call to action change anything?
Of the companies that make up the Russell 3000 Index, just one in four have a woman on their board of directors.
Perhaps the most eye-catching event was the installation of a statue of a fearless girl looking straight at the famous bull on Wall Street. This 4-foot tall statue was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors, which is the third largest asset manager in the world, with $2.5 trillion in assets. As a so-called “passive manager”, its funds track the performance of indexes; it cannot divest from individual stocks. But “passive” doesn’t really capture the whole story: in fact State Street is upping the game on how active it’s being on corporate governance issues. As well as this attention-grabbing stunt, it wrote to the companies that make up the Russell 3000 index, asking them to improve diversity on their boards. Of the 3,500-odd companies it wrote to, about one quarter have no women at all on their boards. It wants to see concrete action towards there being at least one woman on these boards, or it is threatening to vote against the slate of directors at Annual General Meetings.
CEO Ron O’Hanley recognises this could be seen as ‘just talk’. But he is bullish that State Street is not going away, and wants to see real change over the next two years. Taking action and voting against boards is still to come so it’s too early to judge if the words will really be followed up but here’s hoping. And let’s not forget there is all sorts of data out there that diversity improves business performance so this is all a woefully small move in the right direction.
Given the history of patriarchy and the state of the world, perhaps a totally different make-up on company boards would be a good thing! It’s worth recalling US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s quote on how to improve that institution: “People ask me sometimes … ‘When will there be enough women on the court?’ And my answer is when there are nine’”.
It’s not only in the make-up of company boards that this issue arose. In the field of entertainment the same challenge was raised, proving again that International Women’s Day does at least create a forum for debate. The popular high-minded BBC quiz show University Challenge fell flat on its face when the show that aired on 8 March sported two all-male teams representing the universities of Birmingham and Balliol College, Oxford. As one viewer rightly pointed out on Twitter: “Seems like there are more women in Trump’s cabinet than in this series of University Challenge.”
This led the BBC to issue an “it’s-out-of-our-hands” comment. Apparently it’s up to the universities to decide, though the BBC does encourage them to “reflect the diversity of the student population”. (You think?!)
One university has done something about it. Kings College London now requires half of the four-person team to be made up of ‘self-defining women, trans or non-binary students’. This shows the requisite courage and leadership. As Maya Angelou famously said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
Say what you mean and do what you say….
Being authentic is about consistently living up to your values. It’s a key factor in what makes people believe in brands. And perhaps no company knows that better than Nike. Long a supporter of women’s issues with its investment in the Girl Effect, a social movement that seeks to empower young women to end poverty for themselves and others, Nike took the opportunity of International Women’s Day to break new ground—in a way that is consistent with its values. It unveiled a hijab for Muslim women athletes.
The move has met a mixed reception. Smaller companies have been making hijabs for athletes for some time. And of course there is a view that hijabs are a sign of women’s oppression; from that standpoint, no hijab can be a good thing. However, the very fact that a huge brand like Nike is willing to issue products for Muslim athletes is itself a normalizing of Muslim culture. That is the Nike hijab’s major contribution—not the product’s functional utility but what it means for a major American brand to be saying “Muslim women athletes ought to be able to find products for them in our stores”. In the context of President Trump’s anti-Muslim policies, this is a company taking action to stand by its values.
That’s what we all need if anything is going to change: Each of us must look to ourselves and make the changes we need to make. We need to be authentic as individuals and show the courage of leadership if we want to make the world a better, safer and ultimately fairer place. If we are inspired to take that action by International Women’s day, then convoluted as it might be, the UN’s call to action served its purpose.
Adam Garfunkel is Managing Director at Junxion. He has advised companies on corporate social responsibility, business strategy and how to communicate for impact.