On a Historic Day, Women Gather to Chart the ‘New Rules’As a partisan duel took place in Washington, a Brooklyn conference looked for solutions to problems in the workplace and beyond
“It’s a hell of a day for a women’s conference,” said Rebecca Blumenstein, deputy managing editor of the New York Times, before an audience of 250 influential women in Brooklyn this week. “We like to call our conferences ‘live journalism,’ and today that could not be more true.”
The Times’ New Rules Summit, created “to identify new solutions to the enduring challenges women face in the workplace and beyond,” had been long planned, but happened to take place just as a watershed moment was unfolding in Washington with the riveting testimony of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the woman accusing him of sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford.
At the summit in the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, participants circulated between panels focusing on long-term solutions and a TV feed of the extraordinary proceedings happening in real time.
The conference was inspired by a year of historic reporting by the Times, as well as other publications, which fueled the rise of the #MeToo movement. Reporting by the Times, whose team of journalists won a Pulitzer Prize, uncovered sexual harassment by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, as well as at Ford Motor, Brooklyn’s Vice Media, and in Silicon Valley.
The scope of the conference, however, went beyond sexual harassment to focus on solutions for abiding forms of discrimination, including the gender pay gap, the dearth of female CEOs and board members at major corporations, and the gender disparity in Silicon Valley. While statistics amply bear out the stubbornness of these problems, sometimes the absurdity of the old rules is betrayed by particular cases. “Harvard has had more presidents named Larry (three) than women (one),” said Blumenstein in her introductory remarks.
The Times has moved energetically to deepen its coverage of the issues, including the appointment of the first “gender editor,” Jessica Bennett, a moderator at the conference, who told the audience she’s often asked what the job entails. “It’s simple,” she said. “It’s like a regular editor, but angrier.”
Participants in the conference took part in working groups to propose solutions for creating more equitable workplaces and heard more than a dozen panel discussions among luminaries from industry, government and activist groups. A sample from several of the talks:
The Business Case for Gender Diversity
Progress toward gender diversity at the top of Corporate America has ebbed and flowed. The number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, after reaching an all-time high of 32 in 2017, slid back to 24 this year. But maintaining that progress is crucial, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s good for business, said Meredith Kopit Levien, chief operating officer of the New York Times Co.
In other words, it’s not only a matter of social values, but also of financial value, said Levien, who moderated a panel about adding more women to the ranks of CEOs, boards of directors and senior leadership positions. “Research really shows that by having women on the board, you break up that group think” of all-male boards, said panelist Rakhi Kumar, senior managing director of State Street Global Advisors. Companies with diverse leadership tend to perform better financially and have fewer cases of fraud and other scandals, she said.
What kind of gender balance does it take to make a difference on a corporate board? Women now hold about 18% of the board seats at U.S. companies in the Russell 3000 stock index, and have been gaining ground at a steady pace. Even so, many companies have no female directors or just one, which means the women on those boards tend to be viewed by their colleagues as representing a special interest. The other directors may wonder, “Is she asking that because of her gender?,” said Ellen Kullman, retired CEO of DuPont.
When it comes gaining a critical mass of influence, “Two’s interesting, three’s easy,” Kullman said. “When there’s more of you, there’s a comfort level,” she added. “It’s easier to raise real issues.”
“I have a lot of boards that want me to serve, quite frankly because of my gender,” said Kullman, who’s a director at several companies including United Technologies Corp. and Goldman Sachs. But another reason is that she is a former CEO, which is part of the conundrum–too many boards will accept only the very highest-ranking executives as worthy director candidates, thus leaving many women out of the pool.
Search committees should expand their definition to include, for example, really outstanding senior vice presidents, said Kullman, who is co-chair of Paradigm for Parity, a coalition dedicated to addressing the gender gap in corporate leadership.
To bring more women to the top ranks, panelists agreed that data needs to be gathered and goals set, a process that’s underway on many fronts. Said Kumar: “We believe what gets measured, gets managed.” Evelyn Orr, chief operating officer of Korn Ferry Institute, offered some statistical insight from research on women CEOs. “Two thirds of CEOs didn’t consider themselves CEO material” until late in the game, Orr said, which squares with studies showing women executives scoring higher than men in humility.
Other notable qualities among female CEOs were fearlessness, resilience, and a sense of purpose, Orr said, offering this advice: “Find out what your purpose is, because that is your renewable source of energy.”
Among those common traits was real diversity in career paths, Orr said, suggesting that women should be encouraged to take risks on the way to the top. Kullman endorsed that idea, having left her role at DuPont at one point to join a startup “when it wasn’t the thing to do. People said, ‘Oh, you are so screwed,'” she recalled.
When Kullman became the first female CEO in DuPont’s 200-year history, she initially “tried to just be CEO, not a woman CEO,” she said. “I didn’t really want to be a role model, but I was, and you have to embrace that.” But she found that her gender brought certain advantages. “When I met with world leaders, I could wear red to differentiate myself, and everybody would come up and talk to me.”
Unlocking the Global Potential
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the U.S. (assets: more than $50 billion), initially focused its efforts on attacking diseases like malaria and extreme poverty in Africa and other parts of the developing world. But in a conversation with Melinda Gates at the conference, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof noted that the foundation had expanded its focus to include women’s issues.
Part of the goal, Gates explained, is simply to improve women’s lives in places where they give birth on the floor of mud huts, gather wood for fuel, and carry home dirty water for their families. But part of it is about leverage. “If you invest in a woman, she invests in everyone else around her,” Gates said.
“If a woman has a bank account in her own name,” for example, “she’s 11% more likely to enter the workforce” rather than getting by only on subsistence farming, thus earning money to pay for her children’s school fees and a little bit of investment. Gates cited the case of a rural mom who used her savings to buy her son a bicycle, which raised her status considerably. “Everyone looked differently at her,” Gates said.
Yet Gates and her husband, who do rigorous research about where to put their money and effort, are still figuring out the best ways to effect change. “I live with someone who’s a gear-head. He won’t accept data that’s about correlation rather than causation,” she said. Data on women in the developing world is thin, however, “because the world hasn’t invested in it,” so the foundation is conducting a systematic survey about women to see what can enhance their lives, she said.
Besides gathering data, Gates said she spends time talking with residents of rural areas, learning the most, she said, when the men have had their say and then drift back to work in the fields, while the women linger to speak freely. For example, women have told her they’ll gladly accept polio shots for their kids, but wonder why they don’t have access to contraceptive shots for themselves, Gates recounted.
When Kristof asked Gates how foundations like hers can bring change without seeming like cultural imperialists, Gates said she had put the same question to Jimmy Carter, given his experience in economic development. His response: “Any work you do in a community has to be owned by the community. It has to be theirs,” or things will quickly revert to the status quo, he said. In keeping with that advice, the Gates Foundation has worked in Senegal with imams to endorse the use of contraceptives in the Muslim community.
Gates, a computer scientist, has taken interest in the role of women in Silicon Valley as well, though her efforts have been more low-key. In 2015, she launched Pivotal Ventures to invest money in venture-capital funds that “over-index for women-led businesses,” she said. “Technology is pervasive in our lives,” she explained, but without diversity in the tech workforce, “we’re building bias into the system. We don’t want to have bias in AI because it’s written by a bunch of white guys in hoodies.”
Disrupting Silicon Valley
“Silicon Valley has been masquerading as a meritocracy for decades,” declared Aileen Lee, founder and managing partner of Cowboy Ventures, a fund focused on seed-stage startups. Yet she believes that world is changing. “There are more people than ever trying to rewire it, to create a metamorphosis to something more modern—and better,” said Lee in a discussion of the tech world’s persistent gender gap, moderated by Times contributor Kara Swisher.
The problem can begin in the early startup stage, when a team is quickly forming—and winds up being five white guys. “There’s a benefit to working with people you know. It’s like pickup basketball,” Lee explained. “It’s hard when you have to ship a product and there are holes on your teams, but we have to hold these spots open for women and people of color.”
An expedient approach of hiring only familiar faces in the early days can get written into the DNA of the new company. “If the board doesn’t allow you the space to hire a diverse population at the beginning, it’s hard to catch up,” said Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO of TaskRabbit.
Companies can find out too late about the pitfalls of a lack of diversity. Airbnb’s management learned in 2015 that racial discrimination was happening on its platform, said Belinda Johnson, Airbnb’s chief operating officer, which prompted an in-depth report into its practices. The company discovered that the problem was partly due to the unconscious bias of white males in the company’s leadership. Airbnb brought in civil-rights leaders and other prominent advisors to develop a new anti-bias policy for the company, which included “publicly stating your expectations and values,” she said.
Sometimes hardball is necessary to bring change. Brown-Philpot said that companies doing hiring need to insist that recruiting companies bring them diverse candidates, or else lose the work. Likewise, when companies come calling for funding, Lee said she turns down those that aren’t diverse enough. “Firms are losing deals because they are all-male, and we aren’t letting up on that,” she said.
Getting to 50/50 in the Banking World
JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the U.S. (assets: $2.6 trillion), has another distinction as well. Among its top echelon reporting directly to CEO Jamie Dimon, 50% are women. The company’s push for diversity has a practical basis: “We don’t understand the issues of other people if we don’t have a diverse workforce,” Dimon said in a conversation with Times editor Blumenstein.
Even so, “we have to do better,” he acknowledged, since women represent only 30% of the company’s vice presidents, the pool from which many top leaders will be drawn. The company has launched programs to help ensure that happens, Dimon said, among them Women on the Move, which has conducted town-hall meetings led by senior Chase women in 23 cities around the world. Another is the bank’s ReEntry Program, a 14-week training course for employees who have voluntarily left the company for two years or more to raise children or any other pursuit.
The mission is to make sure more women are prepared to ascend to greater responsibilities, Dimon said. “Artificial fixes won’t work. They’re bridges to nowhere. Women in our company don’t want to be falsely promoted,” Dimon said.
Besides creating the support structure, Dimon says it’s important for a company to foster an inclusive social structure. He took notice, for example, of how the white guys in the executive dining room tended to huddle among themselves and talk about the latest sports scores rather than mixing with people who don’t look like them, along with an episode when a plum assignment was handed out at a bar one night after the women at a corporate event had retired for the evening. That’s unacceptable, he said. “I wouldn’t fire someone for that, but I’d tell them, Don’t ever do that again.”
Upon taking questions, one member of the audience pointed out that only two of Chase’s 11 directors are women. “Yes, I should fix that too,” Dimon said, adding, “It’s not easy to do a board search and say I’m only looking for a woman.” Members of the audience called back, “Yes, it is!,” to which Dimon affably responded that he’s working on it.
Nevertheless, They Persisted
“It’s one thing for an American President to attack women on Twitter but another thing to see so many Republican senators fall in line,” said Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood and author of Make Trouble, referring to what was happening in the Senate hearing room at that very moment. “These are not fact-finding missions, these are spectacles for TV where they try to humiliate women.” Yet she was encouraged, she said, by the multitudes of women speaking out about sexual abuse. “It is reckoning time.”
“Everybody has to root out their own predators in every industry,” said Samantha Bee, host of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. “There is so much work to be done, but at least we can talk about it.” On the panel, Bee and Richards, two champions for women’s rights, spoke about fighting for their beliefs, shoring up their confidence, and getting out the vote.
Moderator Monica Drake, an assistant managing editor at the Times, asked the two why the #MeToo movement has become a political battleground—shouldn’t it just be a universal women’s issue? “Depending on what news channel you watch, you have a completely different set of facts,” said Richards. “People have retreated into their partisan bunkers,” agreed Bee, while Richards added, “I hope that women’s humanity will transcend a partisan moment.”
Despite their successes, both women acknowledged moments in their careers when their confidence faltered. “Of course, my whole life was self-doubt. I went to Catholic school—we can start there,” said Bee. “Usually the happiest, most secure people don’t seek out comedy as a career.”
Richards recalled that just before heading into her job interview at Planned Parenthood, she called her mother from a diner to say she feared that she couldn’t handle such a high-profile gig. Her mother advised her “to get over yourself” and just go for it, which Richards thinks should be a universal lesson for women at the moment (perhaps for prospective activists, if not for bankers). “Women are doing all kinds of things they were not prepared for,” she said. “I think that has to be our new motto: Start before you’re ready.”
Both women emphasized the importance of getting out the vote. Said Richards: “Knitting a pussy hat is great, marching, writing angry postcards to Paul Ryan, but voting is everything.” Bee said she was stunned to find out that 54% of her audience wasn’t registered to vote, “and it’s my whole M.O.,” she said. “It’s amazing, I learned that people don’t listen to me!”
To address the issue, Bee collaborated on what she calls a “civic-engagement app,” This Is Not a Game: The Game, a political trivia quiz with cash prizes. Bee, who has three children, said, “This moment is a huge opportunity to teach a generation not to put up with the shit we put up with when we were coming up.”
Earlier this month, The Bridge co-produced a conference about business and society, called From Day One. Read all about it here.