Getting diversity in the boardroom starts with acknowledging ideas

All voices need to be heard and acknowledged, argues Dr. Karen Panetta, otherwise diversity in the workplace will be discouraged.

Recent images of corporate executive boards and government leaders have been posted on social media with the caption, “What’s wrong with this picture?” 

The answer is that no women are included in the images, which means women are still not present in the highest echelons of corporate boards and government leadership.  

To gain entrance, some women have felt the need to assimilate to fit in with the guys. For instance, one female engineer learned to play golf, so that she could join the men on the golf course, where many deals are negotiated and relationships are established. Her strategy worked  - she is now a CEO. 

The most common problem women cite is the scenario where a woman presents an idea to the board or team and is quietly ignored, wherein a few minutes later, a male co-worker makes the same comment and the team is not only receptive to the idea, but openly attributes credit to the idea to the man and not the woman who originally stated it.  

This may or may not be done deliberately, but the result is the same. It causes a stressful dilemma for the originator of the idea. Namely, whether one should bring attention to this injustice and declare to the group this oversight or remain silent. In the former case, a woman who speaks up, no matter how politely, may be perceived to be a poor team player by refusing to “share credit”, while in the latter case, her contribution is forever attributed to another person. 

While other bystanders may later approach and acknowledge that they too witnessed or experienced the same scenario, most colleagues remain silent. What is missing is good leadership and a champion for equity in the room.  It is interesting to note that equity in a team’s ability to share and communicate ideas goes beyond gender. 

If corporations want game changing novel ideas and solutions, they need to realise that the volume or assertiveness by which an idea is communicated does not correlate to the creativity or quality of the idea. All voices need to be heard and acknowledged.

In this data-driven age of digital intelligent infrastructure, companies will require complete and in-depth (deep) learning about the populations and customers being served to successfully compete in a global marketplace. The absence of the female perspective on boards and teams translates into a missed business opportunity to reach 50% of the world’s population, which are women.

The absence of women on high-level executive boards and teams is evidence that there are underlying issues in the work environment preventing the retention and advancement of women. Women cannot advance in a company if there are none present. 

Why do they leave? Because women who see themselves working harder than their counterparts, but receiving less compensation or experiencing unwelcoming work environments will exit for other positions. Nothing will change until corporations (and academic institutions) openly acknowledge the problem, own it, and deal with it. The first place to start is ensuring equity in pay compensation. 

Recently, a large corporation was chastised for refusing a government’s request to release salary information for different genders of employees. The company cited privacy issues and the cost of gathering the information as the reason for not complying with the request. Anyone with any digital computing knowledge knows this response doesn’t make sense. 

Companies are appearing to deal with the issue quietly behind closed doors and on their own terms, but these types of issues are not in their area of expertise and they need help. Having gaming tables and massage therapists available on site for employees is not going to retain or advance more women or underrepresented groups of individuals in the workplace.

Positive changes in workplace environments will only happen if companies open their doors to look and share the facts that these issues are happening, take ownership and get expert help to fix it.

Dr Karen Panetta is an IEEE fellow as well as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University.