Moving the Needle for Diversity in Leadership

by Coco Brown, Athena Alliance founder & CEO

10 years ago, there was a dynamic buzz around the value of corporate social responsibility. At first, this energy inspired an increase in corporate giving and awareness campaigns for social causes but, despite their good intentions and the illusion of progress, these efforts soon grew more superficial than impactful. Slowly, a push began for what was really needed — true, systemic change.

Companies began to do the hard work, evaluating their business practices to determine whether or not they were objectively “ethical” and environmentally sustainable. They ventured into their local communities to provide training and internships to those without access to professional development programs. It became increasingly common to donate employees’ time in addition to corporate funds. And we even saw the introduction of the “B Corporation,” a for-profit company certified to be meeting rigorous standards of social and environmental accountability and transparency.

It’s time to invest in the hard work of achieving “Diversity in Leadership.”

This push for systemic “Social Responsibility” created a generation of workers for whom doing good by giving back is a core value. Today, it’s no longer enough to simply give money to a social cause; our employees, investors, and communities expect us to be an active part of the solution. In the same way that “Social Responsibility” efforts shifted from superficial giving to systemic change, “Diversity in Leadership” is in need of a similar transformation. It’s time to invest in the hard work of achieving “Diversity in Leadership.”

Evidence in favor of the value of leadership diversity is overwhelming. In 2015, McKinsey found that “gender diverse” companies outperform others by 15%, and that “ethnically diverse” companies outperform others by as much as 35%. In fact, for every 10% increase in racial and ethnic diversity on a senior-executive team, company earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) rise 0.8%.

In order to create tangible change, we need to get uncomfortable.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, women account for an average of just 16% of the members of executive teams in the United States. 91% of US companies have senior leadership teams that fail to reflect the demographic composition of the country’s labor force and population. So, why is it taking so long to move the needle? Because we are still working at the surface instead of digging deep and facing the scary truth — that in order to create tangible change, we need to get uncomfortable.

I will be drawing on my 17 years of experience as a minority in top executive leadership, and as the Founder and CEO of The Athena Alliance, to lay out the work that needs to be done to create this systemic change.

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