Davos recap: When Women Thrive breakfast offers insights on progress and hurdles of bridging gender equality

On January 21, Mercer sponsored its sixth annual When Women Thrive breakfast in Davos — where our panel of global leaders engaged in a candid conversation on the systemic barriers to gender equality in the workplace, and how best to overcome them.

Joining me and Mercer’s President and CEO, Martine Ferland, was an inspiring panel of role models and advocates:

  • Sheri Bronstein, Chief Human Resources Officer, Bank of America
  • Larry Meixner, Managing Corporate Executive Officer, CIO, and CTO, Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corporation
  • Leena Nair, Chief Human Resources Officer, Unilever
  • Karen Quintos, Chief Customer Officer, Dell
  • Olivia Ross-Wilson, Chief Communication Officer, Ingka Group (IKEA)
  • Geoffrey Rubin, Senior Managing Director & Chief Investment Strategist, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board
  • Paula Santilli, Chief Executive Officer, PepsiCo Latin America
  • Aniela Unguresan, Co-founder, EDGE Certified Foundation
     

Preview: 2020 When Women Thrive Research
 

Despite the early hour and snowy weather, we achieved record turnout for the event (more than double than our first event in 2015), a testament to the increasing global commitment to workforce gender equality. Our 2020 research, releasing in March, underscores this bright spot: 86% of participating companies say improving D&I is high or very high on their agenda, and 66% say senior executives are now actively engaged in D&I.

We were also delighted to see more male guests in the room than in prior years. Again, we saw a similar trend in our 2020 research, with nearly half (48%) of companies saying that of men are engaged in gender equality efforts, up from 38% in 2016.

In 2015, we began our first breakfast by setting out an activist agenda, hypothesizing that, if we could equalize — and simply get the recruitment, promotion, retention, and pay of men and women in an organizationally equal place — we could move the needle on closing the gender gap.

For the first time since Mercer originally fielded its ground-breaking research five years ago and published the inaugural When Women Thrive Global Report, our 2020 research shows that hiring, promotion and retention rates of women are comparable to those of men across all career levels. This is a significant achievement — and shows how we can tackle a challenge and get real results. 

Plus, we’ve found that the number of women at executive levels has increased 3% since 2016. 

One of the big variables we know makes a difference on closing the gap is in the area of accountability, which is unfortunately one of the places companies are also furthest behind. That made it an ideal place for us to focus our conversations at this year’s event.

Leading from the Top
 

Echoing this theme in our first dialogue of the breakfast, Martine Ferland observed that, while there has been progress made towards gender equity, women still struggle to achieve equal treatment and access to opportunities.

“Why is progress so slow?” she asked. “I would surmise that there's not enough accountability. We need leaders that align the values of diversity and inclusion so that it works all its way through the organization. We need it to be not a mandate, but really a powerful component of the culture.”

Larry Meixner stressed the importance of encouraging organic change from within a culture, rather than attempting to impose it from outside in an inauthentic manner. He suggested leaders find touch points within local culture that can be connected to thinking about gender equality and can be driven from “the inside”. To this end, the important role leaders can play in modeling inclusion and empowerment on their own teams, and in creating programs that address root causes, such as societal infrastructure.

Paula Santilli weighed in on the topic of empowerment, noting that in Latin America, PepsiCo focuses on training, technical help and financial aid for change management among both male and female employees and partners. Women have a well-developed understanding of the value of change, and tend to be very open to listening and testing.

“As business leaders, we have the opportunity of empowering women to make them truly leaders, to make them change agents,” she explained.

High-Impact Conversation on Accountability
 

The theme of accountability continued into our next conversation. Olivia Ross-Wilson echoed a commitment to a strong culture, pointing to IKEA’s focus on togetherness. Culture is an engine for inspiring and driving progress but should also be built into a company’s business priorities, she said.

Karen Quintos stressed the need for an open dialogue on the gender gap. As companies are more willing to share information, they are also able to collaborate and pool resources to solve it. Dell recently formed a consortium of companies focused on moving the needle for diversity and inclusion, she noted, inviting interested companies to join them on that journey. Karen also touched on the work that is still needed in cultivating the next generation of talent, and interesting girls in STEM.

Sheri Bronstein identified four major components of human capital that Bank of America values: being diverse and inclusive, recognition and rewards, wage investment, and transparency. Sheri also stressed the importance of a culture of physical, financial, and emotional wellness in ensuring gender equity.

 “50% of the world are women,” she said. “We’re in a people-oriented business, and if we're not tapping into that talent, we're not going to be successful.”

High-Impact Conversation on Culture Transformation

In the final topic of the morning, Aniela Unguresan of EDGE Certified Foundation led a conversation on how companies are being held accountable to make progress on gender equity and what expectations investors are putting on those companies.

Geoffrey Rubin explained how investors are beginning to apply pressure on companies to report and deliver on equity goals. 

“Delegated accountability works best when you hold your delegate to account,” he observed. “We must establish very, very clear expectations of what we want to see, and then evaluate using the data, using the KPIs, in order to make decisions. […] The business case has already been delivered.”

Leena Nair of Unilever agreed, declaring she is a huge fan of investor pressure. “We have sophisticated financial metrics and completely investor-unfriendly HR metrics. That's the world we live in.”

Noting more men in the audience in 2020’s breakfast, she celebrated the increased attention on the topic. “D&I is integral to business performance,” she commented. “We are all seeing it. When investors ask more about it, HR will develop sophisticated metrics like finance has done, and then we can see and hold people to account.”

Getting real about gender equality
 

Women still face challenges, and we still have much work to do to ensure equality of opportunity, experience and pay. But once again, this year’s #WhenWomenThrive panel demonstrated the impact that can be made through honest and open dialogue, a commitment to purpose-driven leadership, willingness to push for cultural transformation and greater accountability. 

A heartfelt thank you to all our panelists for making the commitment and time to participate in this insightful conversation.

You can watch the full session and see highlights here.

Pat Milligan
Pat Milligan

Senior Partner, Global Leader, When Women Thrive, Mercer

Global Leader, Multinational Client Group & When Women Thrive