Pinkwashing – Here’s how to Tell.
President Trump appointed two men to head up his women in the workplace initiative. The reactions are predictable: How can men appropriately represent women?
But that is the typical misframing of the gender issue. Gender equality is not a “women’s issue” — it’s a huge political, economic, and social opportunity. It is a massive business issue that more than 75% of corporate CEOs currently put on their agenda of top 10 issues.
Research shows that gender balance happens in companies only if it is personally and forcefully led by the CEO. The reality is that many of the companies starting to look truly balanced are or were led by men. Successful gender balancing requires convincing the majority of your employees that it’s a good idea. Smart CEOs of male-dominated companies know that the real push on gender balance (especially in leadership) is getting leaders, most of whom are male, to own the accountability for balancing. And they know that the best person to convince them of this isn’t a woman. It’s one of their own.
So getting men to lead the charge is a smart choice, as more and more organizations are recognizing. But how can you tell whether a CEO is a good leader on gender? It’s pretty easy: See who’s on the company’s executive team. How many women are there? Are they in strategic roles, or staff functions?
Judging this way, are Trump’s choices, the CEOs of Walmart and EY, a good pick? Take a quick look at their top teams: EY has three women out of 17, most of whom are in staff jobs, such as HR. Walmart has five men who sit at the top of its pyramid and probably run the show, but another 35 people on its website under “Executive Management.” Of the 35, 12 are women, with at least half that number in staff jobs again (legal, HR, communications), a classic strategy for first-stage balancers.
Many companies and CEOs are voicing support for gender issues. But while most companies compete to say how much they care, fewer actually deliver more than tokenism at the top. Companies have gotten much more skilled at what we call pinkwashing. They sound good on gender issues, their websites trumpet their dedication, and they sponsor great women’s conferences, but the core jobs on their leadership teams remain male-dominated. They may manage to get a few women up into the latest pink ghetto: the staff jobs of the executive team.
On gender issues, there are three kinds of companies today:
- The Progressive. Companies that are truly balanced, with a mix of genders in nonstereotypical roles on their leadership teams (especially across both line and staff responsibilities).
- The Pretending. Those that say all the right things, run a lot of women-branded initiatives, but still have women only in noncore P&L roles on their executive team. Better than nothing, some of you may be thinking. Perhaps, but it doesn’t promise much for the future.
- The Plodding. Those that ignore the issue completely and stick unapologetically to their all-male status quo.
The first category here is still rare, unfortunately. Even McKinsey & Co., which each year publishes convincing “Women Matter” reports on the importance of strategic, CEO-led gender initiatives that deliver consistent outperformance — reports that are widely cited in discussions about women in business — can muster only 11% women in its senior leadership.
Trump’s own cabinet sits somewhere between the last two categories. They’ve made a nod to a handful of women (four out of 17, the least balanced team for decades), but you know that they aren’t seen as core functions to this administration. One of the characteristics of unconvinced leaders is that they tend not to pick very strong women — almost as though they don’t believe such women can be found. So Betsy DeVos, a major Republican donor, has proved to be the most imperiled cabinet pick as the most glaringly unqualified.
Pinkwashing is increasingly easy to identify. For example, no sooner had Audi aired its gender-equality-extolling Super Bowl ad than viewers were quick to point out that its board is 100% male and its executive team contains only two women (in the pink ghetto functions of HR and communications).
The organizations that really care enough to attain gender balance have been working at the issue for decades, and it shows, very publicly, in their boards and executive teams. The others are looking more transparently traditional. This transparency has been hard to measure up until now; very few companies had managed any form of balance up to the top of their corporate pyramids. Gender statistics are a tightly guarded secret, because they can paint an embarrassing picture. In the competitive war for talent, companies that can prove their balancing success will become vastly more powerful magnets of top female talent. And since women now represent 55% of American university graduates, this is likely to be a huge lever for continued competitive advantage. This, of course, has long been predicted, but the next decade may show the wheat running away from the chaff.
Careful observers will be able to distinguish which efforts are for show and which actually show conviction. Beware pinkwashing, but recognize and celebrate the men who push for the real thing. Their numbers are growing.