Breaking the Glass Ceiling Starts With Changing Workplace Culture

At the eighth annual Women in the World New York Summit, four female executives discussed the cultural factors that have led to fewer women in leadership roles.

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By Lydia Belanger • Apr 7, 2017

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Men designed the traditional concept of career success, Arianna Huffington argues, and it's holding women back.

"It's not enough for women in any industry to look at breaking through the glass ceiling. We need to actually change workplaces," Huffington said yesterday during a panel at the eighth annual Women in the World New York Summit. "They are not working for women, they are not working for men, they are not working for polar bears."

In other words, the leadership disparity between men and women is more than just a women's problem. Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Post and CEO and founder of Thrive Global, spoke with three other women executives about why it's everyone's responsibility to work to close the gap.

Related: Fixing the Pay Gap Starts With Your Salary Negotiation Skills

For one, diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams. Startups with women leaders deliver more than 60 percent better returns, said Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and co-founder of Ellevest and chair of the Ellevate Network. It's in the best interests of businesses -- and Wall Street -- to make their teams less male and white, she said.

As YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki noted, more diversity in tech companies will result in more products and services being accessible to everyone. But so many companies don't have diverse teams, Krawcheck said, because of the "biases about what leadership looks like."

Miki Tsusaka, CMO, senior partner and managing director at the Boston Consulting Group, succinctly described the forces that limit women.

"It's not a capability issue," Tsusaka said. "It's not about a lack of ambition. It's the context and it's the surroundings."

The context varies from company to company and from country to country. The world over, however, women struggle to overcome gender biases that burden them in their personal and professional lives.

"In my experience, the real change comes from having senior women in the companies," Krawcheck said, noting that initiatives to get more women on boards are important, but are only one piece of the puzzle. "It's the women who make the micro decisions in the companies."

From establishing policies that allow women to have flexible schedules without feeling ashamed, to ensuring workplaces have pumping rooms for breastfeeding mothers, it's often women within organizations who ensure that other women are able to care for their families without sacrificing their careers.

Men have important roles to foster a culture that is respectful to women, and to help them into positions where they can make those decisions that will benefit other women. For one, they can resist a misogynistic culture by calling out male colleagues when they make inappropriate comments about women. They can also use their power to support women in all sorts of ways, from making a point of hiring and promoting them to helping them network.

Company leaders can ask their female employees what they value. Huffington said she does this at Thrive Global. For example, it might be important to a mom to take her child to school every morning. Companies can accommodate these schedules and hold meetings later in the day when possible, making career and family seem less mutually exclusive.

Related: What Does Uber Need to Do to Fix Its Battered Reputation?

Huffington -- the first female board member at Uber who has spent the last few weeks leading an internal investigation into allegations that company leaders condoned sexual harassment -- explained that women should not be discouraged when they hear accounts of unfair treatment within companies, even if it seems like there's a new controversy popping up all the time.

"What's changing is that it's harder to keep these things secret," she said. "Everything is coming to the surface. … That's really the catalyst for real change."
Lydia Belanger
Lydia Belanger is a former associate editor at Entrepreneur. Follow her on Twitter: @LydiaBelanger.

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