August 14, 2014 — I recently had the privilege of attending the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado as a Scholar sponsored by PepsiCo. As Vice President of Marketing at Catalyst, I strive to promote an organizational vision that includes lofty goals like “changing lives.” To do this, innovative thinking and new approaches are essential, so what better place could I possibly be? With my mind set on “sponge” mode, I worked to take in genius ideas backed up with real-world evidence and meet the individuals who are putting those ideas into practice.
During the festival, I listened intently and engaged with many of the participating forward thinkers. Of the impressive list, a few of the most impactful were Scott Barry Kaufman (The Imagination Institute), Andrea McAfee (MIT Sloan School of Management), Alfre Woodard (Actress/Aspen Artist In Residence), Nancy Andreasen (University of Iowa), Michael Eisner (The Tornante Company), Katie Couric (Yahoo! News and ABC), Hillary Rodham Clinton (Former Secretary of State; Author), and Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo).
As I reflect on the conversations and knowledge that I exchanged with other participants, I realized that many of the ideas shared might very well be a turning point for women and men who continue to struggle to find gender parity in the workplace. After my experience at the Festival, I’ve come to a few conclusions.
Regardless of how wide-ranging various disciplines and organizations are, there are replicable learnings that can help implement dynamic change in our own backyards—whether they are workplaces, societies, households, or individual lives. We are more similar than we are different, so treating some people as the “Other,” and certainly treating half of society (women) that way, seems like a losing strategy.
Throughout the Festival, “disruption” was heralded as the catalyst of great innovation and creative thinking, and a fundamental necessity for success. Part of successful disruption is having a vision for change beyond the incremental advances that everyone else is making.
And it is this notion of disruption, this dynamic reimagining of any one thing, which has me thinking. Catalyst has been actively researching, consulting, and stimulating dialogue and commitment to working women for over 50 years. We’ve seen, and can measure, positive change, but we are still nowhere near parity—in pay, job level, or opportunity. Gender was not an explicit topic of any of the sessions I attended, but the notion of gender engagement and utilization came up repeatedly as an ingredient in the secret sauce of individual and organizational success.
Many “best-in-class” organizations were well represented at the Festival, and they are proud, when the topic of gender parity in the workplace comes up, to show off their dedication and performance. But I get the sense when looking at some of the representation numbers that “best-in-class” might just be a positive way to connote “best-of-the-worst.” If this is true, is “best-of-the-worst” really our goal? Or must the system be disrupted in order to see real, meaningful change?
Aspen Scholars had the advantage of access to several notable senior executives, and I took this opportunity to make this observation to them. I was relieved to hear them acknowledge that there is much to be done in the area of diversity and inclusion and, in addressing my bailiwick specifically, what can be done to attract, develop, advance, and retain women in workplaces all over the world. Not one of these executives thought that their organization has gotten it right, despite knowing that they are the best in their respective industries.
So I posed the notion of “disruption” to them, asking if they thought it was in their organization’s best interest to disrupt their talent practices, dismantle the systems in place, and start over, redefining the organizational model from one that favors traditionally masculine traits and life cycles, to one better suited for both genders, free from the damaging effects a little thing known as childbirth can have on women’s careers. Would you take, I asked, an already profitable business, break it down, and rebuild it? Would you kill your darlings to make them better?
What I got in return was a lot of contemplation and additional food for thought. Breaking down and disrupting any system is a high risk. Brilliant minds built these businesses in the first place. Certainly disruption cannot always lead to good outcomes. But it does get us farther, and learning from setbacks seems better than maintaining the status quo for our workplaces, employees, and societies.
So while I still don’t know whether disruption is the silver bullet to achieving parity in the workplace, I do have newfound knowledge and inspiration to fuel my own plans for disruption.
Disrupt yourself, or someone else will.