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From the Women's March to the Women's Strike: Entrepreneurs and Business Owners Must Take a Stance There is growing global recognition that equal opportunity for women is the smartest strategy for improving business performance and society in general.

By Nancy Harris Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Aaron P. Bernstein | Getty Images

On March 8, women all over the world are planning to participate in the International Women's Strike to recognize the important contributions that women make to society and raise awareness of the discrimination and inequalities still faced today. There has been much discussion on the validity and utility of a women's strike, following mass demonstrations such as the Day Without Immigrants earlier this month. I stand in solidarity with all of the women planning to strike, and I ask all other business leaders to do the same.

Sadie Doyle, in Elle Magazine, brought up an interesting point regarding what a women's strike means in the contemporary context: how is an all-inclusive women's strike today relevant? At one point, Doyle notes that, for some, protest is a luxury, and many women can't strike effectively and safely without repercussion in the workplace. Effectively, not all women can participate in these demonstrations, strike, or even march, without the risk of losing their jobs— a valid point which makes me wonder how businesses can and should take a more active role in supporting their colleagues. It's crucial to stand up for women in the workplace. Regardless of political opinions, we can all agree that our colleagues deserve to be able to stand up for their right to equal pay and healthy working conditions without risking their job.

Related: Why Finance Would Be Better Off With More Women Leaders

Status of women's participation in the boardroom and beyond.

On January 21st, I had the privilege to participate in the Women's March, a national protest that gathered 3.2 million people together to stand in solidarity for women's rights and related causes including immigration reform, healthcare reform, protection of the natural environment, workers' rights, and racial equality. What I thought would be just a few thousand people showing up to stand up in my hometown of Austin, Texas, ended up growing to a sea of more than 30,000 participants.

While I was thrilled to be supporting this movement and felt proud that we, as citizens with different backgrounds and of different races, beliefs, cultures and socioeconomic strata could come together for a common purpose, the business side of me pondered how we could leverage the momentum of the Women's March to make an actionable plan to change the fact that we're still behind when it comes to women in the global business landscape. We are trailing in so many aspects around gender diversity in the business world, so as a woman and as an entrepreneur, I believe in the responsibility for business owners to take a personal stake in enacting social and institutional change.

There's much work to be done to achieve gender parity within the workforce, but the good news is that the statistics on the growth in women's leadership are encouraging. Let's look at some facts. The number of women-owned businesses is growing faster than ever. In fact, in 2016, the number of women-owned businesses increased by 68 percent. For minority women, this growth has been particularly fast; one third of women-owned businesses are owned by minorities, up from one in six less than two decades ago. We are now the majority owners of 38 percent of U.S. businesses, up from 29 percent in 2007. As the percentage of women-owned businesses are on the rise, we should use these platforms that we've built to empower women and fight for our rights -- there are plenty of executives who've already adopted this strategy. It's great that there has been growth, however, this growth in itself has not been enough to launch us to where we need to be in terms of gender diversity in the workplace.

Just as we're getting more women-owned business, there has been an increase in women executives. A recent Wall Street Journal article cites that more than 75 percent of CEOs include gender equality in their top 10 business priorities. Global companies know that the glass ceiling remains and their commitment to gender diversity is higher than it's ever been. In fact, most companies have improved their numbers of women holding leadership roles within the company. Last year, 51.5 percent of management and professional roles in the U.S. were held by women. Of course, increases in representation of women leadership is a great improvement, but the job isn't finished once more women are seated at the table: we must use our clout to enact tangible change in the organizations we lead.

Related: How Women Leaders Win and Help Others to Do the Same

Next steps for business owners.

While the Women's March represented a breakthrough in support of women's rights and issues of equality, it's all in vain if we don't take action. The International Women's Strike is a global call to action. Where will you be on March 8th? As business leaders, we can not only encourage action, but facilitate it. Whether you condone the Women's Strike or decide to have in-office programming around women's rights to make your own company plan, don't stay idle. We all have a role to play. We may sit comfortably in our own positions as executives, but we should use that power to incite real, lasting change for the women to come after us. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Guided discussions: Spend March 8th educating your staff on why people are striking. You can lead discussions on why these issues matter and how they can participate in the movement.

  • Donation matching: If you can't sustain your business with all of your employees out on strike (Good! that means you probably must have a large number of female employees— ideally on your leadership teams), you can contribute financially to organizations that are directly addressing these issues we're marching and striking against. Encourage your employees to donate by matching their contributions. You can even contribute the organizers facilitating programming around the Women's March and International Women's Strike.

  • Community Involvement: In lieu of an office-wide strike, dedicate some of your business day to engaging with your community. You can work directly with community organizations servicing women, or start a mentoring program with young women to increase representation in male-majority fields.

Related: 7 Ways Women Leaders Can Excel at Being Their Authentic Selves

Looking at the landscape of racial, economic, and social injustices suffered by women across the world, business leaders are in a unique position to use their platform to enact change within their own companies and provide an industry example on how to participate in the women's movement. Ultimately, we must demand social action from these institutions which we lead.

As business leaders, especially as women business leaders, we must take a stand, advocate for ourselves and our staff, and encourage a culture of resistance. It is not enough that we commend those participating in the march and in the strike; this International Women's Day, make a point to think critically about how your business can empower women both internally and externally.

Champion inclusion and diversity in your own organizations. Small business leaders, I urge you to take ownership of our responsibility to rally for long-overdue equality in business and beyond. We can bring to life what we stood in protest for these past few months and, overall, create a better informed, more civilized society. Be leaders in and out of the office, and empower your staff to do the same.

Nancy Harris

EVP of Sage North America

Nancy Harris is executive vice president for Sage North America, a division of Sage Group, the global leader in integrated accounting, payroll and payment systems, supporting the ambition of entrepreneurs and business builders.

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