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Diversity and Inclusion for Women Critical to Business – and Cultural – Success in 2020

Melissa MethenyNovember 18, 2019

Sobering statistics about the percentage of women in supervisory roles and the criticality of workplace diversity were two of the key discussion topics as Acxiom hosted its first Watch, Learn, and LEAD event Sept. 26 in New York. A standing-room-only crowd gathered to listen to industry leaders discuss diversity and inclusion and how to help women break through the glass ceiling.

Acxiom’s Women LEAD (Leadership Enrichment and Development) program, promotes gender equality in the workplace. As co-founders of the program, Stefana Rusu and I hosted the event and opened the discussion by raising awareness about the statistics regarding women in the workplace and how diversity is so critical to the success of Acxiom and all organizations.  The mission of Acxiom Women LEAD is to create an environment where both women and men are able to pursue their career goals without bias or discrimination.

Today, women account for 53% of the workforce yet only 38% are in supervisory or managerial roles and less than 20% of women are in technical jobs.  Looking beyond gender orientation, the overall diversity scale is not balanced. And yet research shows how diversity makes companies more profitable, innovative, and respected.

Stefana cited an alarming statistic: “When looking specifically at the C-Suite, 94% of Fortune 500 CEOs in the U.S. are men despite the fact that more women today are graduating from universities and colleges in the United States.” 

To promote change, there must be real conversation, and to start, we must recognize that this is not just a woman’s problem; it is a human problem … and one that exists globally.  Simply showing a willingness to acknowledge and understand the gender inequalities facing women is a huge step in continuing to balance the scales. It’s an unwillingness to engage in conversation over the issues that only perpetuates the problem. And that is why we hosted this event and brought together two panels focused on getting advice on diversity and inclusion from senior leaders at top companies.  

Dennis Self, Acxiom CEO, moderated the first panel, Diversity and Inclusion: Moving Beyond Conversation – It’s More Than Just Buzz Words.  Diversity is top-of-mind for many organizations today, as companies recognize the importance and value of cultivating an inclusive workplace. This discussion brought real-world advice and stories from senior female leaders about why having a diverse and inclusive environment fuels more creativity, big-picture thinking and more successful team performance.  Dennis was joined on the panel by senior leaders from Google, General Motors, State Farm, and Facebook.

Dennis kicked off the panel by talking about how diversity and inclusion are important to IPG, Acxiom’s parent company, and have been woven through the fabric of everything IPG does. Dennis discussed how “Acxiom is looking to build the A-team, and that requires Acxiom to look at all the different pools of talent in the market to infuse new ideas and new perspectives.”

Jennifer Szeto from Google agrees. “Diversity is not just a buzzword.  It is critical for businesses. It is critical to engage, hire, and retain the best talent.  Diversity equals financial success.”

Saejin Park from General Motors spoke about how “equity starts with companies and people recognizing that there is an inequity.  Once you identify a gap, then you need to remedy the gap. Equity is also about access to opportunity. Companies can’t complain about not having enough women in leadership if they are not mentoring them and bringing them along in the pipeline.”

Amy Peloquin from Facebook cited a recent statistic from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation about gender pay inequity: “By 2050 women will have equity in pay,” Melinda noted, and that she’s so mad it is going to take 30 years, which she finds unacceptable. Women need to be more assertive and open in discussing pay now, Amy says.

When asked about how to choose a mentor, Ginger Hlebasko from State Farm recommended that when women are looking for mentors they should “find a mentor who will bring out your confidence. Most women don’t pursue opportunities because they don’t have the confidence to pursue it. Women need to do what is best for them.”

Dennis closed the discussion, acknowledging the gap in understanding the challenges women face.   “White males in leadership roles often are not aware of the gender and diversity issue,” he said.  He said he believes and supports diversity programs, like Acxiom Women LEAD, and how these conversations create awareness, the first step in unlocking the potential to creating the A-Team.

As I mentioned during the event, Dennis’ view is supported by a recent study by McKinsey and Lean In, which found that in companies where just one in 10 senior leaders is female, nearly 50 percent of men said women were “well represented” in leadership. This speaks to the perception mismatch.  A significant cultural factor affecting women’s ability to reach top management is the engagement and support of men.   

Janet Cinfo, Acxiom CIO, moderated the second panel: Women Breaking Glass Ceilings in Digital Marketing.  While women in advertising and marketing are making great strides and moving into more leadership roles across agencies and brands, there remains a great opportunity for more women to move up.  This panel of top women executives from American Express, Lands’ End, and Cadreon discussed strategies, tips and advice on how women can have a bigger voice, make a bigger impact and rise to meet their career growth ambitions.

Janet spoke about how she is Acxiom’s first female CIO and doesn’t want to be the last, so she is actively supporting a program to mentor young girls and women to move into the technology industry.

Sarah Rasmusen from Lands’ End discussed how women’s lack of confidence  impacts their ability to move up in an organization. “You have to start asking for opportunities or else the doors will never open up for you.”

When asked how men can be better allies to women, Erica Schmidt from Cadreon provided this example: In a business meeting “when a woman has a great idea and it’s very insightful, rather than waiting about 20 seconds and men restating the idea and it coming off as your own idea, alternatively, you could say, ‘That was a really good idea, and I have something to add to that.’  Calling out these forms of microaggressions is important to opening the dialogue and to influence and educate each other to find a better way to communicate.”

There were so many great pieces of advice shared during the panel about what women can do to make a bigger impact within their organizations.  One was to “listen more as you move up into senior leadership.”

Erica discussed how being in a leadership position means “your day is very busy and you can’t be involved in everything, so leaders must give their teams a platform to express themselves and have ownership of initiatives.  We must have top-line metrics to measure whether or not we are moving the needle.” She spoke about “how important it is to have conversations about diversity and inclusion. The second point is that corporations must recognize that there is an intrinsic bias that males are better for certain roles, and we need to do a double-check and make sure we are giving everyone a fair chance and not allowing bias to influence our decisions.”  The Acxiom Women LEAD program focuses on issues of gender equality in the workforce.   The LEAD mission is to create an environment where both women and men are able to pursue their career goals without bias or discrimination.  The primary focus is on women because of the lack of female representation in senior leadership throughout our industry. Since launching in May 2019, the LEAD program has hosted eight events to educate, bring awareness, and provide networking opportunities for its LEAD participants. To learn more about why diversity and inclusion is important to Acxiom, click here to watch this video.