How to "do" Gender Equity: 5 Tips to Reframe Ourselves and the World Around us

What is Gender Equity and Why do we Need to 'do' it?

The UNFPA defines ‘gender equality’ as when people’s “access to opportunities and life changes is neither dependent on, nor constrained by, their sex”; and ‘gender equity’ as “the process of being fair to women and men.” Simplified, equity is the pathway and equality is the goal.

Gender equity has become particularly en vogue of late. There are economic forecasts like the recent McKinsey report noting the vast gains to be had from women’s economic parity; international policy initiatives like the UN’s He for She Campaign and the Secretary General’s new High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment; conferences focused on women entrepreneurs; think tanks focused on increasing female representation on boards or in media…Talk of ‘women’ is everywhere.

Rightly so. Increasing women’s global economic participation will bring trillions into the global economy. Reducing barriers to women’s political and social participation increases political and social stability and GDP. Boards with even one woman outperform male only boards. And so on.

And yet, it remains the case that at least 150 countries have laws expressly curtailing women’s participation in public life and choices in private life, women remain underrepresented in leadership positions, and we need not look far to see the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which individuals undermine women’s equality through various aspects of public and private life across the globe.

Much progress has been made in legal protections and private sector policies. While structural approaches such as laws, policies, and procedures can create the framework for gender equality, we need cultural shift to get the equity part in place. Without that, the bridge from principle to practice will remain unfinished. So...

How do we ‘Do’ Equity?

Thinking about gender equity at the individual level is important for our own well being, for social stability, and for ensuring that it can actually get done when individuals come together at work. It’s no secret that one person can have a big impact – sometimes positive, sometimes not so much.

There is a prolific body of research on unconscious bias, and endless tips for businesses to try to hedge it off at the pass: blind CVs, bias-busting initiatives in team building and performance reviews, standardized pay scales and so on. Much like the benefits of law and policy, such procedural steps are important and have been shown to move equity forward. But what of the final, cultural piece: putting these policies and procedures into practice as people in the day-to-day?

Here are five tips that can help in reframing ourselves and the world around us with a view to ‘doing equity’. At the very least, these three ideas are important starting points for moving forward a conversation in need of momentum.

1. Hit the Sameness Switch.

One of the great intellectual revolutions still underway (though perhaps currently backsliding) is the realization that humans are alike before we are different. This is revolutionary because human history has been defined by our identifying and using differences to justify a creatively enormous spectrum of mistreatment of one another. Skin colour, eye shape, foot size, reproductive organs, and many other characteristics have been used to define and justify a startling breadth of injustice, inequality and worse.

While laws and other advances have made strides in eroding some of these practices, we are every day reminded of the persistence of bias – implicit and explicit – and the breadth of what that bias informs/allows.

So here’s the switch: the epiphany of sameness allows respect for difference.

It’s one thing to recognize fundamental physical sameness – the need for food, water, shelter, etc. But the important conscious realization is recognizing the sameness of the human drive to seek value, security, freedom, meaning and so on. If we start with the premise that each person is an individual striving to be free, safe, and valued – and striving to define for themselves what those things mean - we have a stable viewpoint from which to see the ways in which the world curtails that pursuit for so many people. A starting point of sameness in this way allows one to see how some people are treated differently and to examine why that is.

Using sameness as a starting point allows empathy to flourish.

Empathy is important. It creates connection; it creates context; and it builds understanding of what may be driving the person in front of you. Why is that important? It can help you understand how something will be perceived. It can help you diffuse or resolve a conflict (better yet it head one off). It can help you identify needs and solutions.

Effective empathy can also help us understand difference, moving us from “that’s not such a big deal” to “I wouldn’t like that at all”. This is important in a world where so many women are told to have a sense of humor over jokes that reinforce their marginalization, or where there is a need for a campaign like Black Lives Matter, for example.

For businesses, effective empathy goes a long way in building and maintaining the interpersonal and even interdepartmental relationships on which daily operations rely. But even beyond keeping things functional (and mitigating risk) internally, this kind of effective empathy can help you avoid product development flops, marketing snafus, and other costly missteps. For example, understanding “the female consumer” as an enormous group of individual whole people may help in making better products instead of just turning bad ones pink.

2. Start from the Common Denominator

Flowing nicely from the sameness switch is the idea of starting from the common human denominator. Too often – particularly in conversations around gender equity – we don’t. Example? “Working mothers”.

Parenthood is a fundamental human experience for those who embark on that pathway. Parenthood is something that both men and women can embark upon. Why, then, are we so obsessed with the idea of the working mother? The phrase itself is illustrative in the absence of a common usage of ‘working father’. It is in many ways a natural byproduct of the evolution of women’s entrance into the public sphere, whereby the ‘working mother’ was for a time exceptional. But this is no longer the case.

Gender equity, remember, is about fairness. To continue making progress in opening the public sphere to women, we must also open the private sphere to men. Discussions of work/life balance (though I argue we’ve now moved into the age of work/life integration) – be it in the office crafting HR policies or around the table at lunch – must start with the common human denominator.

In the above example, parents should be the starting category, with consideration therein for the unique aspects of motherhood (and, arguably, fatherhood). But it comes up in other places too. If parents are the starting point, the bias around a female candidate’s prospective motherhood may lose some steam; businesses may craft better, more sensible, truly people-friendly flexible work policies that can be used by people in need of them (ideally, perhaps someday, without stigma or penalty); and we open the door for a more modern and functional understanding of the human reality of work.

Of course, parenthood is not the only area where we skip the common human denominator. Another example could be programs geared toward getting women Board-ready. How is this a problem? Well, men aren't born Board-ready. By focusing on offering women certain skills in this context we imply that women are inherently less equipped than men; we ignore barriers such as access to networks and the role of bias; and we lose out on a great opportunity to bring men and women together in Board-mentorship programs that directly address these issues.

3. Choose (and Listen to) Your Language

There’s a reason why lawyers and legislators belabor every “and” and/or “or” in a document. Language matters. Language – what we name and how we name it, the words we use to contextualize it – defines, scopes, frames and colors what we value and how we interpret our world. Think for example about how in French you go “with” the train rather than “on” it; how German has a single word to express the pain one feels from comparing the actual state of the world to what it could be (“weltschmerz”). Language offers a perspective on the world and frames our interactions with it. It matters, then, what we call things and how we use language to shape them.

There are a few persistent language traps on the path to gender equity. Chief among them is the use of passive voice. For example, “women are paid less than men”. Speaking of issues in this way has the dual effects of implying inevitability and shifting the onus of responsibility.

Active voice is as a matter of course action driven. When “women are underrepresented on boards”, what can we do about it (we all ask, wringing our hands worriedly)? When “companies are under-appointing women to boards”, the onus very clearly shifts, bringing with it both pathways and calls to action. Passive voice implies that phenomena like women ‘being paid less’, female entrepreneurs ‘getting funded less’, and so on are things that, like weather, ‘happen’. It also, however, shifts the onus away from the active subject and implies that women themselves carry the burden of addressing these issues. As a thought experiment, try becoming more alert to the use of passive voice in these contexts – and beyond the gender equity conversation – and consider the impact of reframing the issue. It can really get creative ideas flowing.

4. Stop Fixing Women

The focus on “empowering women” over “removing barriers” implies that there is something inherently in need of fixing with women themselves, obscuring systemic barriers. On one hand, by rendering the different, discriminatory, and disproportionate impacts of policies and practices on women across spheres as “women’s issues”, “women” remain an exceptional group while the default remains male. On the other hand, doesn’t it tacitly give men a free pass for non-engagement? The UN’s “He for She” campaign is embracing this very concern, but we should all be a little taken aback by the fact this idea is novel.

This is not to discredit or disparage the excellent and important work being done by the myriad of empowerment initiatives. Indeed, there is need and there is room for equipping women in this way. It seems however that framing solutions to gender inequity in the language of empowerment has become the focus and this creates a counterproductive imbalance.

It is important that in working to make women feel ‘empowered’ we are in fact equipping women with opportunities to exercise real power. As much as that may require women pushing through doors it may also require men sometimes stepping out of the way. We need to stop fixing women and start identifying the actual barriers.

What if instead of telling women to speak more deeply, negotiate more aggressively, use more confident body language, and so on we told men to listen more openly, to speak more softly, to use smaller body language? There are two aspects to this thought experiment. When reading, hearing or saying something about empowering women or giving them business tips, first swap out woman for man and see if it still sounds sane. Second, flip it on its head and see if you can identify the actual barrier(s) the advice or program is trying to overcome. Does the empowerment approach still work?

When you scratch a bit at the ‘empowerment’ veneer, you may be surprised to find it takes some work to identify the barrier it’s supposed to overcome, but once you do you may also find that problems you’d never considered before become visible – as do novel solutions.

5. Empowerment is for Everyone

In the context of gender equity, there is a need for spaces where women can share their specific experiences with each other and perhaps get some breathing room from predominately male arenas. But are we approaching the moment when the proliferation of “women’s” conferences, initiatives, programs, and so on is beginning to have the effect of entrenching certain inequities as status quo?

It’s time to make room for men in this process in two respects: by engaging them and by empowering them.

Engaging men brings together each of the earlier points including, of course, starting at the common human denominator. But it may also help shape the discourse around this topic away from treating women as an exceptional class, allow men to productively examine their own behavior and role, and open the door for some more robust approaches to progress.

The idea of empowering men is always something that raises eyebrows, which is why it’s important. It is undeniable that males still enjoy more power in most regards globally, but power and empowerment are not the same. As has been revealed by the recent excellent work deconstructing “masculinity” models, the social power enjoyed by men as a group can actually disempower boys and men by paralyzing them from standing up against gender inequity. In a world where a man’s identity as a masculine being depends on his disproportionate social power, is he self-emasculating by standing against the system in which he has been told he is winning?

Despite enormous strides toward making every aspect of human life accessible for women, we have been much slower to do the same for men – just ask a stay at home dad for an anecdote. Empowering men means equipping them with the motivation and the tools to recognize and address gender inequity whether in the form of an unfair policy or a male colleague who keeps talking over all the women at the table.

To move this forward in a real way, we have to have everyone in the conversation, and we have to give everyone the tools they need.

Closing the Gender Gap: It's About the Money

Last Thursday I had an excellent day attending The Next Billion Conference in Vancouver, where an illustrious group of speakers joined a surprisingly intimate number of delegates to discuss women’s global economic participation.  

Much of the focus in international gender equity and equality efforts has been on the social, educational and political aspects.  These remain important and have increasingly been complimented by economic initiatives as evidenced by the World Economic Forum’s Gender Parity Program, for example.

What was interesting about this conference was its decision to approach the issue of women’s economic participation squarely from the business side.  From across the panel topics one could pull four key threads of what women’s economic participation looks like from the business-case perspective.

1. As consumers.  Women constitute the largest consumer base in the world, accounting for approximately 63% of global spending.  Economic empowerment makes sense from the point of a sustained and expanding customer base.

2. As workers.  Women constitute the largest unemployed population in the world, such that closing the gender employment gap would have a substantial positive impact on GDPs (percentages cited by Lisa Wolverton in her opening address included a potential GDP rise of 9% in the US and 16% in Japan).  

3. As producers.  Women entrepreneurs remain underfunded, despite consistently showing higher rates of return and quicker exits for investors.  The conversations around this aspect started with its impact on women-led start-ups but shifted to the ability of women suppliers to scale into global supply chains.  I must admit I hadn’t thought much about that angle, and find it a fascinating point. 

Another angle to the impact of underfunding women business owners was raised by Eduardo Ferreira of Itaú Unibanco, who noted that in his experience with microfinance, men and women have shown a marked difference in their approach. He framed it as men focusing on “how much money can I make with this business”, and women focusing on “what can I do with this money.”  Ambassador Verveer similarly referenced the multiplier effect of the way women spend money.  While I tend to balk at gender-based generalizations, there is plenty of evidence beyond the anecdotal to back this up.

4. As leaders.  Women remain underrepresented at decision-making levels such as executive boards, and throughout management ranks.  A lot of discussion revolved around the question of quotas or no quotas.  Despite the varying viewpoints on that particular question one sentiment was clear: time’s up.  At the current pace, it will take 80 years to achieve gender parity in this area, and everyone at the Next Billion has quite clearly lost their patience. 

The discussions amongst the panels and delegates were sharp, optimistic, and practical. For me, as a management consultant focused on gender and also an international lawyer, my mind kept going to the “4-P” approach that underpins nearly all of my work: Principle -> Policy -> Procedure -> Practice.  Elucidating any one of these things well is a challenge.  But the real difficulty is in building bridges between each of them that (a) can safely carry everyone across, and (b) will actually connect everyone to where they need to be.

What I think will make the Next Billion Conference of real value is tying it all together by effectively envisioning how to build these bridges amongst the various approaches currently underway within specific businesses, organizations and communities.  From the “4-P” perspective, we could start by elucidating the basic Principle that women and men should have equal access to participation in economic life as consumers, workers, producers, and leaders.  From this, the bridge to Policy is arduous but not necessarily onerous.  Understanding contact points and associated barriers should produce good policies around hiring, retention, mentoring, and promoting; around removing or at least countering hidden bias in making business decisions; and around the way the female consumer is engaged as a whole person, for example.  Where things get sticky is in building the next bridge.

Confronting the Barriers

In my experience, the drivers behind adopting a Principle will impact the resulting Policy, Procedure and Practice.  Understanding the drivers and what in turn drives them is important.

When it comes to gender equality, the value proposition for business is nicely intersectional: economic, related to each of the four threads outlined above; moral, either in and of itself or because ‘good business’ has becomes good business; and quite often legal obligation.  When the driver for investing in gender equality is a combination of these factors, the 4-P road will be a strong one.  However, too often the driver is one of these things in isolation (often bare-bones legal compliance), if it is thought of at all.  The result is policies that go unimplemented; procedures that undermine the starting principle; and a failure to practice fairness in how workplace culture plays out.  Why?  It has a lot to do with what shapes the driver, and behind the obvious one – money – lies something even bigger.  Culture.  Discriminatory, biased cultural norms are the biggest impediments to gender equality. 

At the conference, the issue of culture arose frequently during the panel and delegate discussions: the need to change the norms surrounding perceptions of and behaviors toward women.  This is not of course a revelation. The Convention Against all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is one of the most heavily ratified treaties and the most heavily reserved (a mechanism that allows signatories to carve out exemptions for themselves) in the international human rights regime.  What makes CEDAW so controversial?  It asks governments to take steps to ameliorate the culture of discrimination against women: how individuals view the world and behave from the streets to their homes. 

This is the most challenging aspect of gender equality across sectors and across spheres.  It is the thing that most quickly gets people worried about what to do about it and what will result.   In the same way that culture informs workplace practices, so does it inform the drivers behind engaging (or not engaging) with gender equality in the first place, and in turn the quality and process of that engagement.  

Revisiting the four key threads of what women’s economic participation looks like from the bottom line perspective, it doesn’t take long to find the cultural impediments. 

1. Reaching (and serving) the female consumer.  Many businesses seem to be missing the mark on how to effectively reach female consumers more effectively, not only in terms of product offerings but also services and relationship building. 

At the conference, Jessica Schnabel from the International Finance Corporation made the hilarious observation that “women aren’t looking for pink credit cards.  They’re looking for high-value services, advice and products.”  Epiphany. 

Stereotypical conceptions of women’s wants and needs, as well as the failure to have a finger on the pulse of women in the world have led to several missteps and aside from the immediate costs of such blunders they divert resources away from developing products and services that will properly reach the world’s largest consumer spending population.  Removing the various cultural assumptions underlying the idea of “women” and considering instead female people as whole customers is so very basic and yet often seems forgotten. 

2. Leveraging the productivity and contribution of female workers.  Culture comes into play in three overarching ways here: (a) excluding women from paid employment altogether or in certain sectors as a result of discriminatory laws or norms; (b) creating or tolerating work environments that range from overtly hostile to subtly exclusionary; and (c) allowing biases – overt or hidden – impact hiring and retention policies and practice, or becoming unattractive to female talent.  The last two problems are detrimental to men too, as they also experience bullying and parenting penalties albeit in different ways and with different outcomes.

The impediments to entering and retaining paid employment obviously vary for women from country to country.  Access to employment could begin with something as basic as access to education but quickly becomes complex.  In many places, as we all know, barriers to education range from geographic and financial to child-marriage and other cultural norms that keep girls out of school.  In a North American context, attrition rates may require a heavier focus.  Even where legal impediments do not exist there remain persistent problems with ineffective workplace policies and workplace cultures that drive attrition rates amongst women to disproportionate levels. 

While we could spend hours discussing the relative gravity of the respective scenarios, the net impact is the same – an enormous, costly gender gap in global employment numbers.

3. Increasing GDP through the funding and scaling of female-owned businesses.  Discriminatory laws tend to be based on and used to reinforce cultural gender norms.  An example the panels discussed with reference to women entrepreneurs is the impact of abridged property rights on women’s access to collateral and consequently to capital for the purpose of scaling into global supply chains.  It is important for businesses to understand the mechanics of such factors and for an integrated public/private sector approach to removing such barriers. 

When it comes to investment, the disparity in access to venture capital as between male and female led businesses is no secret.  What is interesting is the apparent cognitive dissonance that drives assumptions of such businesses as being higher risk despite growing evidence to the contrary.  Cultural factors ranging from outright sexism to subtler, hidden bias is an important driver of deciding not to fund women-backed businesses or shouldering women out of networking circles where purse strings may be easier to loosen.

4. Reaching parity - or at least reasonable representation – in leadership

Study after study has shown significant performance increase when women are included in decision making.  The 2013 McKinsey “Women Matter” report showed a 47% increase in return on equity from boards with female representation.  That study is not alone.

The conference panels discussed a number of practical approaches in addition or in place of quotas for improving this access issue.  From term-limits, independence requirements, and qualifications at the top to stronger mentoring and sponsorship regimes in between, it’s clear this isn’t rocket science.  But people being people, it’s not simple either.  Many of the same factors outlined above come into play here, primarily perception-based.  One would hope that as barriers ‘at the top’ break down the resulting trickle down will be positive, but we’re learning it will take more than that to make real progress.

The UNFPA defines ‘gender equality’ as when people’s “access to opportunities and life changes is neither dependent on, nor constrained by, their sex”.  They define ‘gender equity’ as “the process of being fair to women and men.”  While structural approaches such as laws, policies, and procedures can create the framework for gender equality, we need cultural shift to get the equity part in place, and without that, the bridge to Practice will remain unfinished.   

In looking at progress in the private sector, Marianne Schoenig from Accenture pointed out that the importance of “more assertive asks” from customers should not be discounted.  This somewhat quick and quiet point deserves real consideration, as it expands the scope of responsibility while making the whole issue real.  Outside the many systems and structures we have amassed to operate within, each of us has a role to play. 

Achieving board parity, providing equal opportunity for female business owners, stemming female attrition rates, and understanding the needs of female consumers are not “women’s issues”.  One cultural shift that may finally be underway is the realization that we are all – each – responsible, and invested.

In a world that can’t go five minutes without talking about sustainability, this is important: from a financial perspective, from a peace and security perspective, from a personal perspective.  We need more people to recognize the problems, realize that the problems are theirs, and act – not from a sense of obligation, but from a sense of vision. We could use some positive vision for the future, and this is an obvious area to find it.

Don't Wait for Someone Else to Shape Your Workplace Culture

It seems more difficult to find someone without a story of a terrible boss or coworker than the reverse. Across organizations, industries, and geographies, issues ranging from subtly inhospitable workplaces to tyrannical managers are rife. The Canadian story of the CBC’s recent woes is an extreme example, but not an isolated one. In some ways it harkens back to Dominic Strauss-Khan whose proclivities revealed a toxic gender perspective; Ellen Pao, who lost her discrimination case but revealed a pattern of terrible behavior at her former firm; or any number of high-priced discrimination cases.

But these examples are more glamorous than they are the norm. The more common scenarios are subtler in creating exclusionary, inhospitable or unpredictable environments where everyone must adapt to a particular boss or colleague’s mood of the day. It is less useful to dwell on the big stories that make the news than it is to use them as a reminder that it takes good people - and many people - to bring policies to life. Without a way to effectively monitor and implement workplace policies and shape workplace culture, every organization is at risk.

There is a spectrum to bad behavior, and it is important to examine how it manifests to create an unproductive workplace. It is equally important to examine its effects. High attrition rates, distracted and unproductive staff, dysfunctional relationships or eroded trust between management and staff - all of these things cost money.

Every business and organization can take easy steps to monitor the health of its human environment and it shouldn’t take an outright case of harassment or discrimination to start. Here are a few things that even small business owners can do to keep their eye on the temperature of relationships and culture before someone takes it out of your hands.

1. Have written policies - and tell your staff about them. Policies governing your people’s behavior and the workplace they create don’t have to be a complicated, legalistic book. It can be as simple as a couple of sentences in an orientation or welcome document setting out your expectations and the organization’s requirements for interpersonal behavior. Ideally, it serves less as a warning against would-be bullies and more as reassurance that your people can expect a good working environment. Either way, it puts it on everyone’s mind, and lays the groundwork for you to be able to act if things start to sour.

2. Have procedures to put your policies to work. CBC had policies ‘on the books’, but as the recent report on the Ghomeshi affair revealed, no one seemed ready (or able) to enforce them. It is important for those at the top to figure out what policies about respect in the workplace actually mean in practice. It is important for everyone in an organization to understand basic aspects like what triggers action and how, who is responsible for taking it, what that action is and where it leads. And it’s not just extremes that should be accounted for. You needn’t be alarmist or bureaucratic to be reactive to early signs that things aren’t so swell. Having a simple, transparent process in place will equip you to turn things around while the window to do so is still open.

3. Train – bottom up, top down. Policies and procedures are important for ensuring you can handle it when things go wrong – or are about to. But even if the lifeboat were beautiful, wouldn’t you rather stay aboard the ship? Training is a key part of that. Investing resources in shaping your organizational culture is as important as investing in your fail-safes. There’s never a guarantee against issues because people are people after all. But you can be proactive in creating a workplace culture and environment that operate with a good-values perspective in place. Examine what is right for your workplace, and consider building training into your budget in areas you may not have thought of before. A small investment in training related to areas such as hidden bias, equity and equality, relationship management, or broader team building for example can give you a big return.

4. Check in. Often. Performance reviews will not be as valuable if they are only top-down. Having a sense of how managers are performing their core function of managing, organizing, motivating and mobilizing the people who report to them is a critical factor in maintaining trust, loyalty and productivity. Approaches such as blinded staff reviews of managers and management structures can prove very useful in examining not only the interpersonal dynamics at play but also organizational efficiencies that may otherwise be hard to spot. In addition, mentorship programs, well curated social programs, and even occasional surveys can be excellent vehicles for keeping your finger on the pulse.

5. Pay attention. There are always signs that something is amiss in the human dynamics of your workplace. Sometimes the signs are overt, other times subtle, but they are always there if you know what to look for. There are a myriad of informal ways to keep your ear to the ground. Keep it real, keep it simple, and keep it up.

It’s no secret that the role work plays in most people’s lives has changed significantly. Ensuring a healthy, happy workplace isn’t just good for business, it’s good for people and the broader communities they make up. Who doesn’t want to play a role in that?

What is Gender Parity?

Gender Parity has emerged as one of the leading business issues of our time. While various international organizations includingthe World Economic Forum to the World Bank are taking note, they are not the only ones. Governments have also been increasingly eying gender parity as a key economic as well as social issue, with the OSC following the EU lead in considering requirements for Board representation and other initiatives for example.


The business case for better integration of male and female into organizations' use of their human capital is difficult to refute, and the private sector is catching on. Investors, multinational corporations, SMEs, public and non-profit sectors, and the general public are increasingly on board.


Our world has a long history of failing to effectively engage a full half of prospective human capital. While this has rapidly shifted in a short period of time, organizations have not kept up with social shifts and the gaps are easily seen. Across the spectrum from employee retention and productivity to internal and external scandals, organizations routinely face many issues as a result of those gaps. Yet, the evidence is mounting that organizations benefit from gender parity: the equitable and effective incorporation of men and women in the whole of human capital and organizational culture.

Gender parity can mean equal representation of men and women on decision making bodies; it can mean pay equity; it can mean equal rights and opportunities.  When we at Prosparity think of it, we think of course of all of these things, but to us it means more than parity in numbers - it means perspective, principle and process.  One must understand the impacts of gender in order to remove the barriers gender can build.  There are a myriad of ways to incorporate this kind of understanding into an organization - from policies and training, to mentorship and partnership programs amongst all levels of staff and management.  It doesn't have to cost a fortune either... but it could save you one.