A few months ago, Barbie was a trending topic across the Internet. With the advisement of BBDO, Mattel, Barbie’s corporate owner changed the direction of strategy and advertising. The concept was simple. Young girls were pictured in an advertisement as football coaches, professors, businesswomen and more. The message was simple. There is no limit to what a girl can imagine and create, translating to a wider message along the lines of “anything you can dream, you can be.”
While the advertisement was very cute, I see it as ground-breaking for its relevance. Too often, young girls are encouraged to play princess, build fairy castles or play mommy with their dolls. Less often today are young girls encouraged to play with Legos or trains, activities stereotypically assigned to boys. Often, grown and successful women shake their heads saying, “The problem is systemic.” And unfortunately, they are right.
Several months ago, I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by Iris Bohnet, Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The event was hosted by the London School of Economic’s Department of Management and centered on her book What Works: Gender Equality By Design.
The main theme of Ms. Bohnet’s presentation referred to a single phrase: Counter-stereotypical examples change perception of what can be. That is, it is hard to imagine being or doing something if it has not been done before. It’s not impossible, but definitely a greater challenge. We look for role models who look like ourselves. I, as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) of mixed ethnicity, admire and greatly respect President Obama because he is familiar to me—more familiar than say, Donald Trump. Similarly, seeing Hillary Clinton become the Commander-in-Chief and President of the United States is more likely to have deeper implications for my own ambitions because I am a woman. It initiates the thought process that I too, can do the same because someone has done it before me. It is not an impossible feat—in fact, it has already been done (or will be done!).
This desire to see role models who look like us pervades every inch of life—in government, social interactions, education, and business. Whether it be the number of female CEOs in Forbes 100 or FTSE 100 companies or the number of females on an interview selection board. This of course, includes examples of ethnic, gender, and religious diversity. Seeing what we can be encourages us to aspire to be like our role models or perhaps—to be better and bigger, growing the work of those role models before us.
I was fortunate enough to be hired for a ten week internship at MasterCard UK&I this summer. Now that I am halfway through my internship, I see so clearly how gender equality is not only achievable but necessary for a modern firm to remain competitive. I have personally seen MasterCard’s London Office enact three of Ms. Bohnet’s recommendations for gender redesign and I can say wholeheartedly that it makes such a difference.
One of Iris Bohnet’s suggestions for talent management is to be weary of the way in which job advertisements are listed. Is there perhaps a reason why more women apply for nursery or elementary school teaching positions? Perhaps it has something to do with the way they’re looking for “nurturing and caring” candidates, words often gendered as feminine. She also mentioned that a work sample is the best indicator of future performance. Why sit and chat about what you say you can do when you can ask a candidate to actually do it? And generally speaking, women tend to be better at showing or doing rather than telling.
When interviewing for my position in the Digital Payments team, I was asked to create a one page document on my personality. It could be whatever I wanted—it just had to show off who I am. Then I was asked to develop an app that integrated a MasterCard payment system and pitch it to the two interviewers, Sebastien Slatter and Aisling O’Brien. It was the first time in my life that I felt that my personality was being valued by an employer. With the task of pitching an app, I was finally able to step away from my corporate black-and-white CV and demonstrate the thing I love doing—talking! I had the opportunity to showcase my strength rather than talk about it.
Ms. Bohnet also recommends creating environments that not just allow for career development, but actively encourage it. While this is easy to do on paper, it is harder to do in reality. At MasterCard, ambition is lauded and career development conversations are as normal as grabbing a cup of coffee. In my five weeks at MasterCard, I have had at least three conversations about where I want to be in the future and how I can get there. I have been “connected” with different people across the business to further my understanding of the firm but also to widen my network base. I’ve even been lucky enough to attend an Executive Coaching session and be coached by Scott Abrahams, Senior Vice President of Business Development UK&I. On top of that, I have been assigned a mentor who regularly checks in with me to see how I’m progressing at work. At MasterCard, there is no limit to opportunities and having the support and encouragement to reach for the opportunities makes ambition a positive thing to have.
Finally, Ms. Bohnet outlines the importance of role models. Role models do matter. Portraits and paintings on the wall also affect perception. While there are currently only two women on an executive team of nine at MasterCard, the presence and reach of these two women is truly incredible—so much so that I have had the honour to meet both Ann Cairns, President of International Markets and Martina Hund-Mejean, Chief Financial Officer… as an intern! The Womens’ Leadership Network Business Group is perhaps the most active business group within MasterCard, supported by women and men in the business. Women are respected in this workplace regardless of position, Graduate Scheme to C-suite. Seeing is believing.
While there are companies around the world struggling to redefine and rebalance their work places, I can stand witness to the power of gender equality in the workplace. Sure, there are politics and other obstacles, but these in my opinion are merely excuses. Work redesign takes time and comes with cultural shocks, but it is well worth the trouble. Gender equality in the workplace isn’t just a good idea—it’s good business.
A podcast of this public lecture is available to download from What Works: gender equality by design
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