The purpose of GWEN is simple: to have women make up 50% of Edelman's leadership in five years. If we are successful, the initiative will no longer need to exist in three and a half more years.

"A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Those words by Margaret Mead – and quite a few from Richard Edelman along with a number of women, and men, throughout our company – helped to inspire an ambitious and notable initiative at Edelman in 2011 called GWEN - our Global Women's Executive Network.

The purpose of GWEN is simple: to have women make up 50% of the firm's leadership in five years. If we are successful, the initiative will no longer need to exist in three and a half more years.

So why create such an initiative when our firm, and the industry for that matter, is filled with women – and in most cases, more women than men? Despite industry estimates that women make up two-thirds of the industry's workforce, a 2011 PRWeek story states: “Women still make up less than half of the executive committee roles at most large PR firms and only four women lead agencies with more than $100 million in global revenue.”

To be clear, GWEN's purpose is to increase the presence and advancement of women at the most senior levels of the company and create an environment where women are encouraged to lead and succeed. To meet this objective, we are focusing on policy, networking, recruiting, educating, collaborating, and career planning for women at all levels across the network.

The intersection of just how to do that while juggling work and a career is one of the areas GWEN explores through its policy working group; ensuring Edelman's policies align with GWEN's objectives, positively impacting the culture at Edelman, and ensuring women are not having to make difficult choices between personal and professional lives. Toward that end, we first tackled our US leave of absence policy, which extended benefits for those who need to take medical leave and made significant improvements for those who take maternity leave. Our new US caregiver policy provides additional time for fathers or adoptive parents so employees can also address those important life moments.

After GWEN's first year, promotions of women in the senior-most levels increased 25% year-over-year. This increased representation matters as studies have shown that companies that can offer diverse thinking and perspectives have more to offer their clients, as well as their bottom line. Consider this, as we did:

  • A study by Pepperdine University tracking 215 Fortune 500 companies found, “the companies with the highest percentages of female executives delivered earnings far in excess of the median for other large firms in their industries.” – “Women in the Executive Suite Correlate to High Profits
  • McKinsey & Company found that companies with three or more women on their senior management team scored higher on all nine organizational criteria (from leadership and direction to accountability and motivation— higher organizational scores correlates to higher operating margins) than did companies with no senior-level women. -- McKinsey Organizational Health Index
  • Catalyst's “Bottom Line” (2004-2008) series has shown that:

o Companies that achieve diversity in their management and on their corporate boards attain better financial results, on average, than other companies.

o Companies with the most women board directors outperformed those with the least on return onsales by 16% and return on invested capital by 26%.

o Companies with sustained high representation of women — three or more women board directors in at least four of five years — significantly outperformed those with no women board directors.

Having more women in leadership positions is important for our clients, our employees, and  our business. Why else would a small group of thoughtful people work so hard to “change the world?”

Gail Becker is chair of Canada, Latin America, and the US Western Region at Edelman.

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