August 12, 2020
By: Hattie Hill
On August 18, we will mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. How far have we come in the century since women earned the right to vote?
The timing itself speaks volumes. One week before this milestone anniversary, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden selected Senator Kamala Harris as his choice for vice president. Just a century ago, women couldn’t vote. Many Black people—both men and women—couldn’t vote. And now, for the first time, a Black woman, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, will be on the Democratic ticket—only the fourth time in history a woman has appeared on any presidential ticket.
As women, when we see moments like that, we know we have a debt of gratitude to pay to those who came before—to people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, Margaret Chase Smith and Shirley Chisolm. But we also know our work is not yet finished.
Like all movements designed to advance civil rights, women have achieved important gains, but the fight for full equality is far from over.
According to McKinsey’s 2019 Women in the Workplace Study, in the five years since launching its research partnership with LeanIn.org, representation of women in senior leadership positions has grown. In the c-suite, female representation increased from 17% to 21%, but those gains have benefited only a small fraction of workforce.
“Women—and particularly women of color—are underrepresented at every level. And without fundamental changes in the pipeline, gains in women’s representation will ultimately stall,” the report states.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. I learned that both from my experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South and through my more than 30-year career advocating for women and people of color at some of America’s largest corporations.
As a Black woman, I recognize that there is often a divide on issues of race and gender—like when my great-grandmother would tell us stories about how she refused to go the polls with my great-grandfather because she didn’t have the right to vote, while he, at least, could pay a poll tax.
Growing up on a farm, surrounded by my five sisters and multiple generations of strong women, I always knew that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. But when I first entered the workforce, I found that corporate America didn’t play by that same set of rules. Women were typically left out of the important conversations. They weren’t in those rooms.
Throughout my career, I’ve consistently advocated for women. Today, women have made gains, but, as the McKinsey study shows, they are falling behind early, making it more difficult to ascend to senior leadership positions and onto corporate boards, where they can effect change at all levels.
Here are three steps business leaders can take to help women advance in the workplace:
- Get good data. As leaders, we can’t afford to be passive and simply accept statistics at face value. Seek out the best data. Consult nontraditional sources to get the most in-depth figures. When looking at employment data on women and people of color, it’s often more difficult to get an accurate picture. Do your due diligence. After all, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
- Set an effective strategy. If you want to help women ascend to higher levels of senior leadership, you must start by setting ambitious goals. When we set goals, we say to our stakeholders—customers, employees, board members—that we value them and recognize the importance of having diversity of thought and experience at the highest levels. A goal is different from a quota—it’s a long-term commitment to grow in a way that reflects your values. Fortunately, you don’t have to create a strategy in a vacuum. There are incredible organizations like Catalyst and DiversityInc. that can provide resources and best practices.
- Develop inclusive relationships. When companies fail to diversify, they often trot out the same tired excuse: “we can’t find qualified people.” My answer: Where have you looked? You can’t just expect candidates to fall into your lap. Reach out to those who can connect you to new constituencies. Make it your mission to create relationships outside of your “normal.” We all need to get comfortable being uncomfortable—that goes for white men as well as women and people of color.
My friends have always marveled at how I make time for so many projects, whether as a consultant, board member or simply a caring colleague. The reason I’m always willing to roll up my sleeves is because to create change, we all need to work together. As a Black woman, I feel a unique responsibility to move the ball along, to be a sponsor to women who aren’t in these rooms and a mentor to those just starting out.
A century after women gained the right to vote, we have a lot to celebrate, but we shouldn’t lose sight of unfinished business. Onward and upward.
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