Too often, conversations surrounding how organizations are committed to “real” change when it comes to diversity and inclusion (D&I) turn out to be nothing more than lip service.
La’Wana Harris, a D&I expert who set out to identify just why so many programs fail in their attempts to truly revolutionize and transform, writes in Diversity Beyond Lip Service: A Coaching Guide for Challenging Bias, “Lip service is an ‘Everyone is welcomed here!’ corporate declaration. There is intentionality about diversity in visual marketing but the employee experience does not align with the words on the mission slide or the assortment of diverse smiling faces in the corporate presentation.” The ugly truth is that many organizations tout #RepresentationMatters, but fall flat by not showing real, measurable results.
There is plenty of evidence that change is happening and will continue to with hard work, and women in executive positions are helping to drive that change. These game-changers deliver influence, mentorship, and leadership guided by intersectionality, as well as being prominent, inspiring examples of what’s possible in a male-dominated corporate landscape.
Here are profiles of three women not only succeeding in leading big companies to profits and innovation, but also leading the way toward creating lasting change in the workplace.
Mary Barra, CEO, General Motors
In five years as CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra has guided the venerable automaker through turbulence and success. Her leadership and dedication to equality—GM is one of only two global businesses without a gender pay gap—led to her being named as the No. 4 most powerful woman on Forbes’ 2018 top 100 list.
Barra’s commitment to quiet leadership, respect, and employee empowerment has transformed GM into a model for efficiency and positive workplace culture, not just for women, but for all employees. Her belief in humility and giving credit where credit is due—and, thus, shifting the spotlight off of herself and onto the people doing great work for GM—has proved especially effective and is a model that business leaders can adopt into their leadership styles.
Susan Wojcicki, CEO, YouTube
Susan Wojcicki also figures prominently on Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women List, coming in at No. 7. Her success at YouTube in five years as CEO is highly regarded, and her success in advancing more and better opportunities for women in business, from the C-suite all the way down to the entry level, is not only impressive, but also important in discerning why #RepresentationMatters needs to be more than a hashtag. Wojcicki is a fierce advocate for better maternity leave, and she is committed to closing the gender gap in the tech industry.
Wojcicki’s advocacy offers a perfect example of how women in leadership can benefit women across the business world. In The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power for Women Leaders, the authors write, “To nurture your vision, you must step outside your comfort zone. You must take the risk of owning your big idea before gaining full consensus from the group. You may need to stand firm when your ideas are challenged.” Wojcicki’s track record of success backs up her proactive stance toward women’s workplace issues—and she’s not afraid to further that stance and flex her influence.
Rosalind Brewer, COO, Starbucks
Rosalind Brewer made history in two ways at Starbucks: by being the coffee giant’s first female chief operating officer (COO) and by being its first African American COO. Ranked No. 34 on the Forbes list, Brewer also was recently named to Amazon’s board of directors. Before Starbucks, she served as CEO of Sam’s Club, a division of Walmart.
Brewer is uniquely positioned as a champion for diversity and inclusion for all underrepresented employees, embracing an intersectional approach to equity at work. And she’s used that position to effect real change. In 2015, while still at Sam’s Club, she faced scrutiny for her directive for more supplier diversity. In an interview with CNN, she said, "Every now and then you have to nudge your partners. You have to speak up and speak out. And I try to use my platform for that. I try to set an example." Systemic bias—sometimes in plain view, sometimes bubbling under the surface and inadvertent—remains a problem; leaders such as Brewer act as a force to address and eliminate the preconceptions that hold diversity and inclusion programs back, thereby interrupting the biases that uphold systems of power and oppression.
Driving Positive, Lasting Change
The examples of Barra, Wojcicki, and Brewer can and should serve as inspiration for creating lasting change in the workplace, but you don’t necessarily need to be a CEO of a billion-dollar company to exert influence and transform workplace culture.
In her book Dig Your Heels In: Navigate Corporate BS and Build the Company You Deserve, Joan Kuhl writes, “The research shows that more women at the top strengthens the effort to attract and hire talented women at the middle and bottom of the organization as well. This means that when you dig your heels in, you’re not only making it easier for the next women CEOs but also making the business world more hospitable to women at all levels—from the mailroom to the boardroom. Even if that woman in the mailroom has no desire to move up the corporate ladder and stays in the same position for the next twenty years, your creating change in the company will make her life easier and more fulfilling. Now how rewarding is that?”
In other words, the small things you do as a woman in leadership positively impact the bigger picture. And that is most definitely rewarding!