Erica Pinsky



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Are You Ready for the Age of Participation?


Ever heard of Dagenham, England?  I know I hadn’t until very recently when I saw Made in Dagenham, a  film about female employees at the Ford Plant who walked off their jobs in 1968 to protest the fact that they were getting paid a lot less than men doing work of equal value. It was that action that led to the passage of the Equal Pay Act in Britain.  It wasn’t long before countries on both sides of the pond followed suit and passed similar pieces of legislation.


The film was truly inspirational, a shining example of a Margaret Mead quote I often share with my audiences.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.
  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”


Apparently, however, the former strikers, now well into their seventies, are concerned that the world has not changed  as much as they would have expected.  They chose to celebrate the film’s release by going back to London to meet with Teresa May, currently Britain’s Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality.  Evidently Ms. May shares their concern.  "the sad thing is that 40 years on there's still too much of a gap"1


Now I am thinking that some of you are starting to lose interest in this article at this point.  But before you stop reading consider this:


Integrating women more effectively into the way businesses invest, market and recruit yields benefits in terms of profitability and corporate governance.


Research consistently  demonstrates a strong correlation between higher degrees of gender diversity in the leadership ranks of business and organizational performance.


The World Bank finds that by eliminating discrimination against female workers and managers, "managers could significantly increase productivity per worker by 25 to 40 percent."


In a McKinsey survey, a third of executives reported increased profits as a result of investments in empowering women in emerging markets.


US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shared these facts in her opening remarks to the delegates at the first-ever Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) High-Level Policy Dialogue on Women and the Economy held on September 16 in San Francisco. Ms. Clinton made a very compelling argument as to why the key to the economic prosperity of the member states, including the US and Canada, requires promoting true equality for women, the kind of equality that the women of Dagenham sought back in 1968.


“The big challenge we face in these early years of the 21st century is how to grow our economies and ensure shared prosperity for all nations and all people…. That is a clear and simple vision. But to make it real -- to achieve the economic expansion we all seek -- we need to unlock a vital source of growth that can power our economies in the decades to come. That vital source of growth is women.


I don't urge this because it is the right thing to do, though of course it is. … it is the necessary thing to do.”2


Ms. Clinton contends that we are poised for another momentous shift in our collective economic history. “I believe that here, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are entering the Participation Age, where every individual, regardless of gender or other characteristics, is poised to be a contributing and valued member of the global marketplace.”


However, like the women of Dagenham and Britain’s Home Secretary, Ms. Clinton is concerned about the fact that “structural and social impediments” have not shifted to allow the full participation of women at work.


“In the United States and in every economy in APEC, millions of women are still sidelined, unable to find a meaningful place for themselves in the formal workforce. …Some barriers are left over from a different time and haven't changed to reflect new economic realities or concepts of justice. Some seek to preserve an economic order that ensures that men have the higher-paying jobs to support their families. Some reflect lingering cultural norms…”


Lingering cultural norms.  What I refer to as  “The way it is around here.”


In Road to Respect I share what I heard from one client when I asked him about gender distribution in his organization. “Like most workplaces we have more women working in administrative positions and more men working in management.” He was describing the cultural norms, the way it is in his workplace.


The problem with cultural norms is that without an interest and curiosity to learn about them, combined with  a deliberate and strategic plan to shift them, they tend to persist. When KPMG, one of the Employers of Choice I feature in my book started looking at their norms, they discovered a whole host of “micro-inequalities” embedded within their culture.  They also found a direct correlation between those micro-inequalities and their ability to retain top talent.


One of the practices they adopted to expose those cultural norms are leadership roundtable discussions, called “Dead Moose on the Table” conversations,  to explore  common misperceptions and myths affecting decision making.  At every level of the firm, employees participate in conversations aimed at raising awareness about assumptions and attitudes that may be affecting workplace relationships.


The goal is to remove those barriers, those lingering cultural norms Ms. Clinton talked about.  Consistent with Ms. Clinton’s rationale, KPMG made this a strategic priority not just because it is “the right thing to do,” but because of the “clear business reasons” primarily the war for talent.


“For businesses where intellectual capital is the major input, the challenge is particularly difficult.  Knowledge workers can pick up their marbles and go elsewhere.  Unless you are seen as an employer of choice, you won’t attract or retain the kind of people who will develop and execute the business strategy that puts you ahead of the pack.”3


One of the big problems I see in my work is that the whole issue of promoting genuine equality for women raises all kinds of emotional alarms. This is not an emotional issue.  It is a business imperative.  Consistent with the facts Ms. Clinton shared in her presentation, studies by Catalyst of Fortune 500 companies in the US find that companies with more women at the senior corporate office level outperformed those with fewer women by as much as 36%.


As I write this enews Canadian finance ministers are meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper because another economic crisis is upon us. We no longer have the luxury of clinging on to outmoded barriers and cultural norms, or of  allowing our emotions to cloud work related decisions.


 In my last article I shared this quote from Albert Einstein and I feel compelled to include it once again.  “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.”


However, just changing our thinking isn’t enough.  We need to change our actions.  We need to change  our behaviours.  As Ms. Clinton stated “Our Declaration is meaningless if we don't put muscle behind our mission. As I said earlier, this Summit "just might" make the history books. But it will do so only if we make history by empowering our rhetoric with concrete action.”


Take a moment to consider this question..

“So what’s it like to work around here?”
What would your employees say?


Now is the time to for your workplace to join the Participation Age.  Follow the example of KPMG and other employers of choice who take concrete action to create respectful  workplace cultures where all employees, whatever their personal characteristics,  are able to contribute to their full potential.

The first step is to get the conversation started.
And if you are not sure how to do that, I can show you.


1Veterans of Dagenham dispute strike another blow for equality 42 years on,  Sam Jones, guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 September 2010 21.50 BST,

2 Women Are Vital in the Participation Age,Posted: 9/16/11 01:05 PM ET, Huffington Post, Canada,

3 Beth Wilson, national leader enterprise practice and Canadian managing partner, KPMG, Address to the Vancouver Board of Trade, November 16, 2006



"In her book, Erica provides a wake-up call for employers by detailing why respect, as a core value, is so imperative. She then provides a persuasive argument why organizations should embark on the road map to respect. Particularly compelling are her personal workplace anecdotes as well as the case studies featuring some of the largest companies in Canada, who are getting respect right."

Melanie Sklarz
Diversity and Respect Coordinator
Edge Learning of Ohio RespectfulWorkplace.com