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Laura Wise headshot

Women: The Next Corporate Cause?

By Laura Wise

On January 7, 2018, at the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards, Oprah Winfrey received the 2017 Cecil B. DeMille award for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment — the first black woman in history to win this coveted award. She delivered a timely and well-crafted acceptance speech — better yet, a call to action — declaring ever so eloquently that the culture of silence in the entertainment industry has ended, “… I’m especially inspired by all of the women who have felt strong enough and inspired enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year, we became the story.”

2017 will be remembered as the year of women, as the year when women across the country and in every industry said, “Me Too” in unison. In January of 2017, nearly 5 million Americans marched for women’s rights; since that time, the Women’s March has been called one of the largest demonstrations in American history. In February, Susan Fowler published her now viral essay on the culture of sexual harassment at Uber. In December, it was the “silence breakers” who were given the honor of Time’s Person of the Year. And by January 1, 2018, a legal defense fund had been created through a new organization powered by women, appropriately named, Time’s Up. The organization addresses the systemic inequality and injustice in the workplace that have kept underrepresented groups from reaching their full potential.

The women who marched, and the women who spoke up are various. They are actors, activists, hotel workers, senators, hospital workers, entertainers, dishwashers, artists, journalists, farm workers, entrepreneurs, housekeepers, professors, office assistants, those who chose to remain anonymous, and many more. These women are also your employees, your employers; your mothers, your sisters, and your daughters. American culture, and more importantly, the American economy, have stumbled upon the place where two roads are diverged in a wood; which road will you, business leaders, choose?

In November of 2017, Cecile Richards, outgoing President of Planned Parenthood of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund addressed a captive audience of business leaders at the 2017 Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) conference, themed “How Business Leads.” Planned Parenthood has been a beacon for women’s rights for over 100 years; Planned Parenthood is also a business that has been under attack throughout much of their existence. Richards, who has served as the president for 12 years, has been a bold and courageous leader; in the past year alone, she has helped to guide the women’s healthcare organization through three defunding attempts at the hands of a hostile administration. Through a combination of her tenacious spirit and the reality of President Trump’s low approval rating, in the first 100 days after the 2016 election, donations to Planned Parenthood were up 1,000 percent. Richards knows a thing or two about leadership, and drew from her work fighting to keep a business alive and thriving to challenge her colleagues. “It’s time we embrace women’s full equality. For the women who work for you, for the women who would like to work for you, and for the women who want to look up to you and your brand as a force for good in the world.”

Historically, business and government haven’t always been on the same page, but it’s often been the business community who has the cultural capital and influence to move the needle on key issues. In her call to action, Richards reminds the business community of just how effective they have been in the past:

Business has led and can continue to lead where the government is lagging behind. Companies like Microsoft and Levi Strauss have set examples on how to treat LGBTQ employees back in the day. Business has stopped backwards policies in their tracks by threatening to take their business out of states like Indiana and North Carolina after their governments backed discriminatory legislation.
In directly addressing the wins that the business community has championed, Richards continued by putting forth a bold challenge to the leaders in the room. “You’ve stepped up for the environment, against gun violence; you’ve stood up for immigrants and refugees because they are your employees, board members, and CEO’s…. Here’s my challenge: It’s high time we do the same for women.” Richards adds, “You are the biggest, loudest voices in our country, and if you don’t like this vision of America that the administration is articulating, now is the time to offer an alternative.”

To take up the fight for women’s rights, it’s critical to understand the challenges women face in the workplace and the opportunities available for your company. If you are serious about women’s rights, get a meeting on the calendar today to consider these three things.

1. Company culture Often times women find themselves having to wedge their square pegs into the round holes of corporate America, and even when they do so, gender bias is still an ever present issue that can create a barrier to success. JL Berdahl reports in her 2007 book “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women” that research has shown that women in male-dominated occupations, especially those in male- dominated work contexts, are sexually harassed more than women in balanced or in female-dominated ones. According to a 2015 Cosmopolitan survey,1 in 3 women ages 18 to 34 have been sexually harassed at work. Seventy one percent of those women said they did not report it.

Richards paints this picture clearly for the audience, “For decades we as women in America have fit ourselves into a world and workplaces that weren’t built for us. Some women don’t even think about it. We make many little allowances each day without even thinking about it; from laughing off crude jokes to losing sleep thinking, “What if this meeting runs to long and I can’t pick up the kids?”

Richards recommends that you ask yourself these questions about your company culture, and answer them critically and honestly. Is your workplace a place that makes it easier or harder for women to succeed? Are women paid equally? Do you have paid family leave? And do you take  sexual harassment and sexual assault seriously?

2. What type of women’s healthcare coverage do you offer? Women have made tremendous strides professionally over the last 50 years due to a number of factors, one of those being access to birth control. According to Planned Parenthood, birth control in America is directly correlated with economic advancement, educational attainment, and positive health outcomes. Access to birth control has helped with family planning, ultimately keeping women in the workforce longer, and can also be used to treat other ailments, including reducing chronic pelvic pain and incidences of ovarian cysts, among others. As an employer, do you cover the full range of women’s healthcare benefits? If you’re ready to take a public stand for women’s healthcare, Richards offers Planned Parenthood’s initiative, Fight for Birth Control. These 24 companies have already made the pledge to partner with Planned Parenthood and stand up for women’s healthcare and your organization has the opportunity to do the same.

3. Reproductive rights is your issue too It’s easy for many to write off reproductive rights as controversial, or as an issue that ‘doesn’t affect me.’ Richards quickly points out that if it doesn’t affect you personally, it affects someone you know, and most importantly, reproductive rights affects your customers. Richards shares a few facts about where the economy, spearheaded by upwardly mobile women, is headed: “One recent study shows that 9 out of 10 millennials would switch brands to one that is important to them. Another poll shows that 80 percent of all women believe that brands should be standing up for women’s rights with the same intensity that they stood up for LGBTQ rights.”

Time’s up on straddling the line and tiptoeing around issues in an attempt to remain politically correct; It’s time to make a decision on how you will support women’s rights. Your customers are marching, writing letters to their senators, and are using their voices to speak up – they are waiting for you to do the same. Sit with your HR team and change a divisive policy, sit with your PR team and release a statement about where your company stands. Lean In and McKinsey and Co. tell us in the 2017 survey, “Women in the Workplace,” that 1 in 5 C-Suite leaders is a woman and that fewer than 1 in 30 is a woman of color. Take a long hard look at your own leadership team, do women have a seat at the table at your organization?

Now’s the time to reach out to large players in the women’s rights space: Planned Parenthood, Time’s Up, Lean In. Or reach out to your local women’s advocacy group, all of whom are changing the way that we see and interact with women in the workplace; forge a partnership today. Richards said it best as she closed out her keynote, her words even more relevant now as she closes out her tenure with Planned Parenthood this year, “Now’s the time to be bold and brave with us (women), to stand with us not only on the right side of history, but on the right side of the future.”

In a similar vein, as Oprah closed out her acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards, she didn’t address the men, or even the women in the room for that matter. Her final remarks were directed at the little girls sitting at home on the floor in front of the TV, watching the award show as she once did at her mother’s house in Milwaukee.

So I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time where when nobody ever has to say “me too” again.
The movement for women’s rights in the workplace is about you and I today, but more importantly about creating a world and a work culture that we all will be proud to send the next generation of girls into, knowing that people of every gender, every creed and color fought hard for them to get there.

This article was originally published in CR Magazine

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Laura Wise writes and speaks about business, philanthropy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), technology, and entrepreneurship. You can check out her portfolio here

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