International Women's Day is a reminder to keep pushing forward

Organizational structures were not designed for those outside of the dominant culture, says Soon Mee Kim, Porter Novelli's leader of global diversity and inclusion.

From left to right – Soon Mee Kim , Kendra Clarke, Cheryl Miller Houser, and Angela Chitkara talk at a Porter Novelli panel discussion about the need for balanced representation.
From left to right – Soon Mee Kim , Kendra Clarke, Cheryl Miller Houser, and Angela Chitkara talk at a Porter Novelli panel discussion about the need for balanced representation.

International Women’s Day is a time for reflection. It’s also a month-long opportunity to build awareness of the issues women face in the workplace.

This year’s theme, #BalanceforBetter, is a call to action to create opportunities for all. It’s about the personal actions we can take as women and as allies, as well as addressing the systemic changes needed for balanced representation in the boardroom, the C-suite and across industries.

On Wednesday, Porter Novelli convened a panel discussion in New York City to address this issue. We talked about the state of women in the workplace in light of the most recent McKinsey & Company 2018 study that shows that women’s representation, especially at the most senior ranks, has stalled or is regressing.

Furthermore, we cannot blame women for not leaning in or for lacking ambition. No, the research is quite clear: organizations must do more.

During the discussion, Kendra Clarke, VP of data science and product development at Sparks and Honey, referred to the everyday sexism and racism women face at work. She recalled times throughout her career when she felt "super lonely as the lone queer, black woman in the room" and having to counsel other women on how to respond to microaggressions.

Cheryl Miller Houser, founder and CEO of Creative Breed, said, "Over my career, I often fell into the role of a very good second-in-command. Ultimately, I created my own company and now that I have, I am thrilled to be able to lead and manage in a way that’s more aligned with my core values of respect, inclusivity and positive collaboration."

What I see in my work leading diversity and inclusion is that our organizational structures were not made for those outside of the dominant culture. Like a stubborn cowlick, our norms return us to a default position that excludes women, people of color, LGBTQ+ community, and any other communities outside the dominant culture. Without very intentional inclusion efforts, without bold steps, this will not change.

Angela Chitkara, assistant professor in the Branding and Integrated Communications program at The City College of New York, addressed the need for PR agencies to be more diverse and inclusive in Harvard Business Review.

"We may not have all the answers, but we need to raise the questions about changes happening in our society and culture. PR professionals counsel some of the biggest multinational corporations. We conduct environmental scanning by understanding the changes in our culture and society, as well as issues that matter most to our multicultural stakeholders and audiences through their lens. If we truly want inclusion, that means we need more women and diversity at the table to join the conversation."

Joanna Barsh, director emerita at McKinsey, speaking at the 2019 Makers Conference, discussed how implicit biases about women’s leadership qualities and responsibilities are impacting female representation and career trajectories.

Beginning at the entry level, the talent pipeline for women leading to the C-Suite is consistently thinning out. Even in PR, where women make up more than 70 % of the workforce, representation dwindles at the most senior ranks.

Two women -- Helen Ostrowski and Karen van Bergen -- have held the CEO post at Porter Novelli. In 2017, we confirmed gender pay parity. Currently, we have gender parity amongst our executive leadership and managing directors, and more than 50 percent of women make up our senior ranks as whole.

Like every organization, however, we must stay hypervigilant and intentional because the default position is to regress.

For our industry to succeed, balance for better also means we must be intersectional when we look at gender. Women of all identities are ready to lead. It’s up to all of us to push the #BalanceforBetter agenda forward through our personal and organizational actions.

Soon Mee Kim is executive vice president and global diversity and inclusion leader for Porter Novelli.

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