Business Shows Feminism How It’s Done

Angela Winkle (RC) and Communications Director for the WSA looks at how powerful men have advanced feminism, and asks how all HBS students can use their positions to privilege to do the same.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]2[/stag_dropcap]014 has been touted as watershed year for feminism: the year men become active participants. Elizabeth Nyamayaro, founder of the UN’s viral #HeForShe campaign has said the campaign is the first time men have been engaged ‘as our allies and partners to address the inequalities that affect women and girls globally’. But in fact, this ‘welcoming’ of men to the game is an extension of a movement that has been taking shape for the last few years, from Australia’s Male Champions of Change (MCC), to the UK’s 30 Percent Club and, notably closer to home, HBS’s Manbassadors.

What is interesting is that the forward guard of male champions has been concentrated in the business world.

One explanation is that in business gender equality can be clearly measured (4.6% of S&P 500 CEOs, 19.2% of S&P 500 board members, 45% of the S&P 500 labor force are women). At the same time many of the hurdles can be attacked with tangible, and relatively uncontroversial, action, like mentoring, sponsorship programs, and using broader recruiting approaches that recognize that traditional approaches attract traditional candidates (i.e. men). I call these actions relatively uncontroversial in comparison to those required to tackle the highly complex and subversive drivers of sexual and domestic abuse, genital mutilation and other similarly devastating and important manifestations of gender inequality.

Another, not mutually exclusive, explanation is that the people leading these business efforts, like Elizabeth Broderick in the MCC, Helena Morrissey in the 30 Percent Club, and the HBS WSA Board of 2013 who started Manbassadors, are pragmatic business savvy women who understand how to use their positions of power.

These women are using their own power to engage men, and using men’s power to drive broad scale change. For example, a significant impetus for the 30 Percent Club was the threat of EU-wide quotas for the representation of women in business. The women of the 30 Percent Club abhorred the proposal, so they persuaded the people with the power – for the most part men – to use their positions to take constructive and voluntary action, avoiding the need for quotas.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]O[/stag_dropcap]ne of the main criticisms of #HeForShe is that it does not drive action but is merely an easy way to jump on the PC bandwagon as a passive supporter with the right hashtag. The potential to achieve tangible and direct change in the business world is a great opportunity to move from passive PC supporter to active contributor.

And you don’t need to be a CEO or Chairman to use your power. HBS students already often hold esteemed positions (whether formally or informally) in the organizations they enter. As an intern or in your first job out of HBS, the challenge is how will you use your power.

The question for us is: how will we use our power? Will we question why there are no women on the leadership team of the VC or PE funds we join? Will we question why there are no women on our teams? Will we plan our next team events keeping in mind that golf and poker may not be of interest to everyone (including some of the men)?

Will we seek opportunities to mentor or sponsor younger women? A tangible opportunity is coming up on Feb 18 with the launch of #savvywomen, an initiative that encourages men and women alike to publicly nominate a savvy woman they know to pursue an MBA.

Finally, will we take the time to think through what creates a level playing field, versus what creates unfair advantage? Efforts to increase women’s progression in the business world are plagued by claims of unfair advantage – a challenge demonstrated by the rumor around HBS hallways that the 51 on the back of WSA t-shirts reflects a push by the WSA to have 51% of admitted students be female. For the record the 51 commemorates the 51 years that women have even been allowed to apply to HBS, a welcome reminder of how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go before even equal representation is achieved.

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