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International Women's Day: Private Sector Perspectives

Time and Place

6th Floor, The Wilson Center

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Event Details

In honor of International Women’s Day, the Women in Public Service Project brought together private sector leaders to discuss intersections between sectors on the impact of women in leadership, barriers to women reaching senior positions, and best practices that can be shared across sectors. The event consisted of a panel of women leaders who work for global companies in law, PR, digital technology, audit, economics and consulting to discuss innovative models of promoting leadership in both sectors and how the private sector can engage to promote women’s leadership in public service.

WPSP Director Gwen K. Young opened the conversation, calling on the panelists and audience to work together to develop the tools needed for progress toward gender parity across sectors. She noted that while this has yet to be accomplished, the parity conversation has been prominent in the private sector due to the strong business case for women’s participation and leadership and that certainly the case and progress can be developed in the public sector.

Tara Giunta, a partner at Paul Hastings, discussed the importance of quotas in achieving parity in private sector leadership. She cited voluntary quotas in the UK and Norway’s mandatory quotas for as evidence of the impact quotas and targets can have on gender parity. However, she said, truly impactful change occurs at the grassroots level – local engagement in gender parity efforts is equally if not more important than national policies.

KayAnn Schoeneman, Senior Vice President, Practice Director of Public and Corporate Affairs at Ketchum, spoke to her experiences in a company that is predominantly women and that emphasizes gender equality in the workforce. She described working for a company with 50-50 representation on the global council and term limits to allow for new leaders to emerge as a “bubble” – outside this environment, the disparity of women in the workforce becomes particularly noticeable.

Ms. Schoeneman also talked about the social barriers to parity that are more difficult to quantify and regulate. She argued that women tend to be more risk-averse, and are less likely to seek the “spotlight” because of this. Rather, observed Ms. Schoeneman, women say they want to be “the person behind” those in the center of attention. This is harmful to gender parity efforts as emerging women leaders are left with few role models. “It would have such an impact on U.S. and global perspectives if women took more initiative in being in the spotlight,” she said.

Agreeing with Ms. Schoeneman, Theresa Peterson, Manager of External Affairs & Technology Programs and Director of Government Relations at GE Global Research noted that coaching, mentorship, and sponsorship are also important in supporting emerging leaders. Most important, said Ms. Peterson, is the sponsor – “the individual that will speak for you when you’re not in the room.”

The other panelists agreed sponsorship is key; Laura Cox Kaplan, a corporate & non-profit board member and former Partner-in-Charge of Public Policy at PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP (PwC), noted sponsors are especially valuable in instances of failure. Echoing Ms. Kaplan, Ms. Peterson noted that men tend to recover from failure with relative ease compared to their female colleagues: “We don’t say ‘I made a mistake, can you help me?’”

Ms. Young then asked the panelists about the importance of networks in fostering leadership. She noted it is important to “surround yourself with champions,” but young women often ask who they should look to in order to build these networks.

Ms. Peterson agreed networks are critical, and noted the important role men play in successful networks. “In corporations, the people in senior leadership are men,” she noted, so it makes sense to engage those who currently hold power in empowering others. Ms. Kaplan added that although she had many female mentors, all of her sponsors were men.

Ms. Schoeneman further observed that women sometimes think they do not need sponsors, and their skills and talent go unrecognized. It is important to surround yourself with several sponsors, she advised, and it is “better not to have a sponsor look like you,” because their endorsement will be more powerful.

Shifting the conversation from building leadership to the current landscape, Ms. Young asked the panelists what the impact of gender parity has been in their experiences. Ms. Peterson asserted that diversity drives innovation, particularly in STEM-heavy industries. Ms. Giunta added that diversity changes the conversation and leads to more innovative outcomes in all areas; Ms. Peterson agreed, noting women tend to be more collaborative and that diverse actors improves the process which is just as important as the policy or outcome.

To conclude the moderated panel segment of the event, Ms. Young asked each of the speakers for their advice on fostering cross-sector engagement for gender parity.

“We need to think differently about what makes a difference,” argued Ms. Kaplan, noting that successful collaboration must take on creative approaches, including innovative cross-sector partnerships, targeted funding, and grassroots-level engagement. Ms. Peterson added that corporate social responsibility and community engagement can also help bridge the two sectors, citing GE programs for community leadership and STEM sponsorships. Finally, Ms. Schoeneman noted that as a global PR agency, her company must align and engage with the global public.

Ms. Young then opened the event up for audience Q&A. When asked about the challenges of addressing quotas as a tool for achieving gender parity, Ms. Giunta agreed the quotas discussion in the U.S. can be contentious and therefore a distraction. She noted that “any effort to improve gender equality” – including quotas – “has to involve strong messaging” to garner widespread support. The idea is a quota plus political will or a consequence or sanction.

Another audience member observed that efforts to implement sponsorship programs are sometimes rejected because sponsorship is seen as favoritism. The panelists agreed that sponsorship is not equivalent to favoritism, and can in fact level the playing field against gender bias. To address misconceptions, the panelists all advised such programs be accompanied by strong messaging and training for successful sponsorship.  Ms. Peterson noted that often one does not know who their sponsor is.

The conversation then turned to metrics, as one audience member asked how success in the private sector can be translated into public sector contexts. Ms. Kaplan noted that tangible metrics or targets are much more difficult in the public sector, particularly in legislative bodies, calling for innovative approaches impact measurement in these areas. One such approach, advised Ms. Peterson, is to emphasize the “people piece ” over the “policy piece” – that is, emphasize the human element – as this is what will drive change toward gender parity.

When asked about the impact and implementation of family leave policies, all panelists agreed this is critical to any gender parity effort. Ms. Schoeneman observed the private sector is ahead of the public in this regard. Ms. Peterson and Ms. Giunta spoke to their experiences as working mothers, agreeing that technological advances and new family leave and flexible work policies have allowed them to maintain a work-life balance without hindering their careers.

Ms. Young closed the event by emphasizing the need to substantive target-setting for gender parity indicators, and thanked the panelists for their contribution to this effort.

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