It’s easier for companies to make it look like they’re making space for women than to actually make the space.
And despite the influx of women’s mentorship programs and women in business awards that certainly aid the optics, the still-slow uptick in women in executive leadership roles and occupying board seats begs the question as to whether current inclusion efforts designed to support women are truly bringing corporations closer to real equality.
The answer — at least for those willing to probe and persist in finding a solution to an age-old problem — is deep.
“I think we have never paused to say, ‘what about the way that we have structured work does not align for how and when women came into the workforce and did not accommodate women in the workforce?’” KeyAnna Schmiedl, global head of culture and inclusion for Wayfair, who was newly named to Forbes’ 40 Under 40 list for her work on inclusion, told WWD. “What we’ve done is spend a lot more time kind of saying the ether is assimilation rather than actually shifting to what it could be and how that could work better for everyone.”
What could work better for women (read: everyone) in the workplace is to be considered on their own terms.
As Anne-Marie Slaughter, American international lawyer and chief executive officer of New America, put it in a 2014 Ted Talk: “Real equality, full equality does not just mean evaluating women on male terms. It means creating a much wider range of equally respected choices for women and for men. And to get there we have to change our workplaces, our policies and our culture.”
It means, according to Schmiedl, aiming for an equitable approach rather than being singularly focused on equality.
“We’re not going to get immediately to equality,” she said. “You need to invest in the spaces that have typically been underinvested in and you need to at least investigate why is it that there aren’t as many women in leadership as there are men? And in doing that investigation, you start to find there are systemic processes that are in place now that are actively working against women because they were built for and designed by men.”
For example, building codes and bathrooms — seemingly simple but complex in their ability to both unlevel the playing field and speak to the greater corporate gender imbalance.
Most buildings, Schmiedl explained, have taken an equality approach to bathrooms: the same number for those who identify as women as for those who identify as men.
“If you just think about anatomy, the reason why you always see lines for women at concerts and conferences is because our anatomy, it takes us a little bit more time in the bathroom. And so, if we applied an equitable approach that means that you’re going to have more bathrooms for women because of how our anatomy works, not because we don’t want to invest in men,” she said. “And so how do we help folks to understand that an equitable approach actually means that you’re not losing out, we’re helping people to get to that same level where then we can start to say we’re comparing apples to apples and have true meritocracy. But without that we’re just saying we’re applying a meritocracy to structures that do not allow for there to be equal amounts of success.”
At Wayfair, Schmiedl and her team are working to turn back the hands of discrimination to create a space where success isn’t predetermined based on gender — or any other demographic factor, for that matter. (By the numbers, Wayfair increased its number of women in leadership from 25 percent at the associate director level and above to 32.8 percent in a six-month time frame, “so we know that you can do it,” Schmiedl said).
Though it may not look like inclusion on its face, removing “confidence” as a crutch descriptor for opportunity areas in performance reviews was one of the company’s steps forward. Unsurprisingly, its usage was stacked against women and, as most well know, performance reviews are key to promotion considerations. Wayfair flagged the term as problematic for its suggestive nature and called on managers to better illustrate their points instead of falling back on that.
“What I mean by ‘you need to develop more confidence’ is going to be different than what Susan needs, what somebody else needs. So if you’re just telling me that without a descriptor of what you’re talking about, I have no idea,” she said. “And also, confidence is a team sport. You being confident comes from your team supporting you, your manager providing you with safe…spaces for you to experiment and try things out and then get that feedback from them and yourself as well, so it’s in that combination.
“What we saw was that this then led to, one, better written performance reviews for women and, two, an overall increase in the performance ratings for women where, for the first time, women were rated more highly overall than men and that has been sustained. So we know that it works to focus on language and that is not us saying, ‘men, here’s where you’re doing something wrong,’ that’s us saying, ‘here’s a learning opportunity across the board and it happened to support women.’”
Women still face a unique set of workforce pressures their male counterparts don’t, which often means they have to do more to simply be considered at the same level.
“I have seen women in senior vice president roles break down and cry from the pressure they are put under by male bosses. Especially women with families that have to choose between missing their kid’s soccer game and making a business dinner,” said Eunice Cuevas, manager of programming at a streaming company.
That kind of imbalance, for Cuevas, means women-focused programs and inclusion efforts have a necessary role to play.
“I do think it keeps us separated, but it [is] also necessary as a way to elevate us and help us succeed and feel supported in spaces we thought we were not welcome,” she said. “I happen to work in the entertainment industry where women are a large part of the workforce, but it wasn’t until recently that changes were made to ensure that a larger percentage of women and people of color were sitting in leadership positions….I have always worked on teams that had great female leadership and peers. I have always felt supported and equal to my male counterparts. However, I have not always felt ‘equal’ as a person of color to my white counterparts.”
That’s where Schmiedl advises companies to pay closer attention to intersectionality or risk omitting a critical component of inclusion.
“What we’ve tended to see in the past is when we would say women, what we meant was cis-gendered white women. And so, you would still look across the company and you would say, ‘look at the representation of women in leadership,’ but then you would plug into that and you would say, ‘are there women there that look like me?’” she said. “When you start to click into that intersection, you get into what do community support structures look like both historically and now, and then…you just have a lot more companies talking about how do we holistically support the person that we’ve decided to bring on?”
Holistically supporting women can come in many forms, and if you ask luxury footwear designer and one of WWD and FN’s 50 Most Powerful Women, Amina Muaddi, getting to that full equality Slaughter speaks of doesn’t necessarily mean pulling back on inclusion efforts or recognition that’s just for women.
“I think it’s fine for us to have our own category because, besides being included in a general list, which I think is fundamental, I do believe that because we’ve always been one step backward or several steps backward, not because of us but because of the lack of power that we’ve had and the lack of control over certain things that we had in the past, I think it’s fine to have things that celebrate just us,” she said. “Having [something] like the Black Lives Matter movement…does not take away anything from everybody else. It’s the same way with other cultures. I think it’s cool to celebrate women and to celebrate our accomplishments and that doesn’t take any place that we could have on other lists where there are many included.”
Muaddi, at present, has an entirely female workforce crafting the Italian-made footwear with the well-known kick-flare heel and supporting the business, which has seen collaborations with Rihanna for her Fenty label, among the more general hype around bestsellers like the Begum Glass pumps that would have been what Cinderella left behind if she were around today.
“It wasn’t done on purpose,” the designer said of her workforce of women. “If I will meet men who are incredible at what they do and will fill the conditions that I’m looking for, of course I will be open to opportunities. But I definitely want to support women and I’m proud that this is a place that employs women and gives women the space to express their creativity, their strengths, their capabilities…it makes me very proud that I’m able to offer them not just the job, but an environment where they can grow both creatively and professionally.”
While she considers fashion a “pretty open” industry for all of the diversity of those represented in it (however disparate their opportunities may still be), it was no less of a battle for Muaddi to get credit for her creativity — particularly as men have always been the most celebrated for footwear design.
“It definitely takes more work for a woman to be taken seriously,” she said. “I was not a woman that grew up in the center of the fashion world and I definitely had to make a place for myself and to show that I was worthy of being respected and worthy of being perceived as a creative that has a vision and that can be a leader…[it] definitely felt like that was a space that was harder to fill and an accomplishment that was harder to achieve.”
Though she’s made it out of that initial grind and the slew of “naysayers” and “doubters” she met within it, the designer still wants women in her (figurative) shoes to pursue their seat at the table at all costs. “It doesn’t matter how [naysayers and doubters] see things. It does not say anything about you. So if you believe in what you do, do not give up no matter how long it takes and no matter how many hardships you go through.”
Muaddi may have her seat at the table now, but she still wouldn’t say that she’s made it.
“I don’t think I made it. I think the worst thing is to think we made it, you know, because you wouldn’t be motivated anymore. I would retire if I think I made it,” she says, laughing. “Every day I have a new challenge and there’s so many things that I haven’t achieved that I want to achieve, but…it’s important also to celebrate what you’ve accomplished so far, not just to think about what’s the next step.”
When it comes to next steps for companies, Wayfair’s Schmiedl says it’s about two critical things: one, including a wide variety of the demographic group inclusion programs are being built around to get their insight and, two, scrapping the notion that seeing more women in leadership roles means only sourcing them from outside of the organization.
For one, she said, “If you’re not including the group of folks that you’re talking about and if you’re not including the intersection in those groups of people, you are likely missing some opportunity areas for yourself.”
“When we have this conversation about women, I would love for us to use the term ‘women’ in the same way that we should use the term ‘diverse,’ which is there are these different dimensions of diversity, so diverse does not apply to one particular group of people, it’s only in comparison to the broader piece. So when we say women, talk to Black women, talk to Latinx women, talk to white women, talk to women who are immigrants, talk to women who are first-generation college students,” Schmiedl said.
Beyond talking with women across the organization, it’s about listening to them, seeing their efforts and recognizing that women leaders already exist internally.
“I think we truly do ourselves a disservice if we are not looking at internally growing the women who are right here in our organization,” Schmiedl said. “I think another call to action is ensuring that employers and organizations are focusing on not just hiring women at leadership levels, but developing them. Because part of what we’re seeing with the Great Resignation that’s impacting all of these companies is the ability to hold on to key talent. And the way to retain key talent is to show them that there is a path to grow and hit their goals there.”
Companies need to be less focused on how they can get things right “to save our reputation,” as Schmiedl puts it, and more focused on getting started in earnest “so that that becomes a part of our reputation.”