Women's Initiatives: Lame or Legit?

By Alexandra DeFelice

My male boss wanted me to coordinate a "women's initiatives" panel for a group of managing partners across the United States, Canada, and Mexico who are part of our association.
 
I rolled my eyes.
 
I couldn't help it. Me, the "younger" woman, thought there would be no way the older male head honchos would go for such a thing. They'd think it was lame. So we debated calling the panel something else, such as "promoting top talent." Ultimately, we chose not to avoid the 1,000-pound gorilla in the room and focused on the issue at hand.
 
We discovered that a handful of our firms had recently implemented women's initiatives, so we contacted the ladies in charge to (1) ask them to speak on our panel and (2) dig deeper into what the men in their firms thought.
 
What's interesting to me is that it was primarily the women - not the men - who were concerned about launching such initiatives from the get-go. Like me, these women thought that launching a women's initiatives program in the firm may serve as a deterrent rather than a positive step in the direction to get more women in leadership positions.
 
The women mentioned that initially they didn't know whether the men in the firm would be receptive or antagonistic, but they discovered that the ones who "matter" have been very receptive. Much of this is simply about misunderstanding.
 
One of our female members surveyed women in her firm to determine their interest level in creating a women's program and received an 80 percent response rate within twenty-four hours, with women requesting networking and growth opportunities.
 
And at the end of the day, if the men in the firm can benefit from these programs, all the better.
 
For example, one of a handful of men present at the AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit in Boston this October was boasting about a positive experience his firm has had with a "Moms Like Me" support group. Then he was asked, "What about dads?"
 
Coincidently, a young man in his firm whose wife recently had twins is creating a "Dads Like Me" program because he, too, needs support. If there was resentment relating to the moms program, he wasn't aware of it, but either way, the end result was a positive one.
 
As much as I am for promoting people based on competence vs. gender, I've increasingly witnessed and read studies about how women (generally) don't vocalize their desire to move ahead as much as their male counterparts and often offer different perspectives. For example, when asked to list characteristics of effective leaders, women almost always say "good listener," whereas men rarely do. 
 
PwC's 2012 annual corporate directors survey asked: "What sources do you use to recruit new board members?" The top response: 90.7 percent said other board members' recommendations.
 
Unless people consciously try to take the leap to find someone who doesn't look like them, subconscious biases can get in the way. It may not always be important to have diversity at the board level, but it may open the door to thinking differently about your clients and your overall business direction/decisions.
 
Admittedly, this is not just based on gender but on age, upbringing, geography, culture. However, here's a statistic that came out of the AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit that may make you remember that men are from Mars and women from Venus, and those companies who can speak bilingually to both genders may just forge ahead:
 
A 2011 Catalyst study showed that Fortune 500 companies with three or more women directors on their boards over at least a four-year period outperformed other organizations without that makeup. Yet, only 12 percent of US companies have three or more female directors on their boards; and 27 percent of US public companies have no women on their boards.
 
On the more personal side, speakers talked about the fact that they've observed women who have difficulty projecting their voices without sounding "shrill," women who don't take a commanding seat at the board table and instead move their materials over to make room for others or sit on the side of the room, and women who said men sometimes expressed discomfort going out with them one-on-one fearing the "perception" that others would see it as a date vs. a business meeting. Maybe it sounds "lame" to discuss what to wear to a company party, but I've heard plenty of chatter about the attire of female staff and rarely any about men.
 
One woman at the summit, who was among only two female managing partners to be part of the AICPA's "Major Firms" group of Top 100 firms, went to a meeting where all the men in the room seemed "proud" to have her present. One of the men approached her and said that he had met her at the meeting before, though it had been her first time there - it was the other woman who had attended the previous year and was absent this time. "You've been here before," he insisted "No," she responded. "But we all must look alike."
 
This is not about victims or villains or women needing special help. It's just encouraging women to talk about issues that matter to them vs. pretending they don't exist.
 
Related article:
 
About the author:
Alexandra DeFelice is senior manager of communication and program development for Moore Stephens North America, and a regional member of Moore Stephens International Limited, a network of more than 360 accounting and consulting firms with nearly 650 offices in 100 countries. Alexandra can be reached at adefelice@msnainc.org.
 

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