Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
I know what it feels like to be left out. I was born in Mexico and moved to San Diego at the age of 4, where I learned to speak English in Kindergarten. I struggled to make friends because I couldn’t understand my classmates, and many kids didn’t speak to me because I “spoke differently.” Luckily, I picked up English quickly but then faced another insecurity. When I was eight years old, I talked my way into playing on a boys baseball team with my twin brother because “girls” nor “co-ed” baseball was offered where we lived. From the very first practice, I was mocked for literally throwing like a girl.
Fortunately, times have evolved for young girls, and we have more female and diverse leadership in place than ever before. Yet, it’s not enough. Too many outdated ways of thinking and policies are in place that need to be knocked aside.
For 2023, the International Women’s Day theme, #EmbraceEquity, aims to get more people globally talking about why “equal opportunities are no longer enough – and can in fact be exclusionary, rather than inclusive.”
The campaign strives to educate on the differences between Equity and Equality. It states that “Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances, and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.” Inequity affects several people, but historically it has impacted women, people of color, members of the LBGQT+ community and people with disabilities. It has also affected lower-income individuals and the underrepresented.
As we look to continue to instill courage and inspire a more inclusive vision for female leadership, below are eight strategies for how organizations can empower the next generation of women leaders and entrepreneurs.
1. Make women aware of their superpower
We all have one. My superpower is the ability to get people on the phone, to get the meeting scheduled and to get them to return the email. I’m not intimidated by the outreach and genuinely enjoy meeting people to build relationships and friendships. Encourage women to use their superpower, be it a keen knowledge of tech or a track record of success with scaling business plans, support them to go after their dreams and goals, tackle challenges and break barriers. Usually, it’s within these accomplishments that we can drive company success, systemic change and personal growth.
2. Create a culture of belonging
For a company to be productive and inspirational to its employees, a sense of belonging needs to be felt by everyone. If a woman or anyone feels excluded, insecure or unsafe, her self-esteem and talent will be diminished. To create this culture, organizations can meet a baseline of fair pay, offer meaningful work and support women with a work-life balance between office, hybrid and remote work. Women feel a sense of belonging when their opinions are valued and when their managers lead with empathy. For the 4th year in a row, Hilton topped the list for Fortune’s Best Workplaces for Women. The company outlines how they create a culture of belonging in its Diversity and Inclusion Statement and Report here.
3. Build more diverse boards
I work on CEO and board searches with my team at Boyden and focus on taking action toward addressing the lack of diversity on corporate boards. According to the Himforher.org 2021 benchmark study of Gender Diversity On Private Company Boards, produced with Crunchbase, nearly 40% of high-growth private companies have no women on their boards, and 78% have no women of color.
Overall, only 14% of all board seats in private companies are held by women, and just 3% by women of color. In fact, that same study revealed there were as many board members named “Dave” as women of color within the firms researched. And yet, studies reveal that diverse boards outperform their peers.
Jocelyn Mangan, CEO and Founder of Himforher.org, explains that there is no pipeline issue. Mangan explains that “there are plenty of women with the skills needed to serve as a director to fill every empty seat.” She encourages CEOs to build more diverse boards by identifying sources outside the personal networks of those in the boardroom today and building a broad pipeline of candidates. Leaders should also focus on finding the right expertise: looking across who is already on the board and identifying the missing skill sets — functional, industry, scaling and growth, ESG, customer segment or business model — will yield a broader and more strategic pool of qualified candidates.
4. Introduce inclusion in the onboarding process
During the onboarding at my firm, I was required to take multiple training seminars on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, complete with quizzes at the end. It was an important refresher for me, and I also learned new specifics about the continually evolving inclusive language. Education on language, pronouns and respectful word choice will drive a stronger company culture. Leaders can begin with The Inclusive Language Handbook or recruit a certified DEI leader to educate employees.
5. Fit the job to the candidate instead of the candidate to the job
Especially for women, tailor the job to meet her needs rather than asking her to mold into a role that may have antiquated policies that lack flexibility, skill sets, and interpersonal and soft skills. I recently read CNBC’s Senior Media and Tech Correspondent Julia Boorstin’s new book, When Women Lead, where she addresses obstacles that women face and shares valuable takeaways for building more successful female leaders. Using data and research, Boorstin explains how women’s traditionally undervalued characteristics, such as vulnerability and gratitude, can be “vital superpowers.”
6. Generate public relations and exposure for women
Champion women for speaking engagements, podcasts, speaking on panels and media pieces. When I launched my marketing and PR agency 14 years ago focused on sports, health and wellness, my first few hires were female athletes, including an Olympian. When I identified opportunities for my team to be featured on a podcast or speak on a panel, I pitched them and encouraged my colleagues to share their stories to inspire and educate others. After the first media piece I helped her secure, my Olympian colleague went on to speak on multiple podcasts and panels about her challenges with mental health in athletics and continues to share her story to inspire and support fellow female athletes.
7. Offer mentorship and leadership development programs within and outside the organization
Identify the strengths, room for growth and passions within women and offer learning to help them achieve their stretch and aspirational goals. Allow women to put their day-to-day work on hold to accommodate their development and encourage cross-functional mentorship, allowing them to build more relationships and feel safer and included in their work environment.
8. Understand the business imperative for how diversity can drive productivity and success
PagerDuty, a digital operations solution company, is an excellent example of a company that sought to fill their gaps in tech and equal pay. After reviewing PagerDuty’s 2022 Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Report, I spoke to their Chief Diversity Officer, Roshand Kindred, who shared that representation in tech for women, especially Black and Latina women, was limited.
Among a handful of inclusion programs rolled out at PagerDuty in 2022, Kindred focused on hiring more women for tech positions and put a gender equity plan in place. Productivity went up in only nine months. Even more impressive, today their pay equity and gender equity is spot on — dollar for dollar for men and women.
Empowering our next generation of women leaders goes beyond policies and hiring practices. The most important thing companies can do to promote more women leaders is to think, act and lead with the conscious commitment to including everyone and promoting a culture where women, and people of all genders and backgrounds, can show up as their authentic selves. Leaders must make it a business priority to offer more women leadership and board positions. The only way we will inspire and accomplish this is not to make less noise and take action.