by Catalyst

The following is an excerpt from Catalyst President and CEO Ilene H. Lang’s speech at the Catalyst Awards Dinner held on March 29, 2011.

For years you’ve heard me talk about the Catalyst Census and the persistent gender leadership gap. Women comprise roughly 50% of the workforce in developed economies and just over 50% of managerial and professional positions. Yet women’s rise into positions of corporate leadership, as senior executives and on corporate boards, has leveled off at about 15%.

Across the globe, women are valued less than men. This is a problem.

  • In industrialized countries, women working full-time earn, on average, 82 cents to every dollar earned by men working full-time.
  • Paying women less reduces GDP: In the U.S. by 9%, in the Euro-zone by 13%, in Japan by 16%.
  • A college-educated woman in the U.S. earns $1.2 million less over her lifetime compared to her male peers.

Women are also worth less than men across society. Here are a couple of examples from our own backyard:

  • In New York City there are 150 statues of people: 145 are of men and 5 are of women.
  • Not a single U.S. national holiday is named after a woman!
  • And when a U.S. Supreme Court Justice says that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, this is a problem.

What do we call this problem? Sexism.

Now I know the word “sexism” carries baggage. But no matter what you call it – gender bias, systemic inequity, inequality, or discrimination – the belief that a woman is not as capable as a man simply because she is a woman is at the root of the challenges we face. When the societal perception is that women are worth less, it’s hard to make progress in the workplace.

Two weeks ago, I was stricken with full-blown laryngitis. Under doctor’s orders, I had to stop talking. For many days, I literally had no voice.

This was a new experience for me; I’m not used to not being heard. I wrote notes, typed, IM’ed through “conversations” and meetings. The situation amused my Mother–for the first time in our lives, I couldn’t talk back to her, and I couldn’t interrupt! Can you imagine the president of Catalyst, a spokeswoman for women, with no voice?

Enter an “Aha! moment.” The literal became metaphorical. I realized that voice is a privilege, and with that privilege comes the responsibility to speak up for those whose voices we don’t hear because – due to sexism – they are thought to be worth less.

So, tonight, I urge each of you to use your voice when you see sexism.

When you see sexism, say something. And then, walk the talk: Do something.

Say something when you see men advance more quickly than equally qualified women. Anne Mulcahy suggested that to root out gender bias, companies should “take the resumés of the last 100 people hired, remove the names, do an assessment of where the hires should be positioned and compare that with where they were placed.” And when you find a disparity, fix it!

Say something when you are asked to appear on a panel or board or participate in an event where there are no or few women. Make it a condition of your participation that women be well represented. Become a resource and recommend women for inclusion.

Say something when a well-meaning teacher or guidance counselor tries to channel your daughter away from math or science just because she’s a girl. Introduce them to programs that channel girls into math and science, such as those sponsored by Catalyst member companies to help girls excel in STEM studies.

Say something when people tell you, “But there weren’t any qualified women to fill a seat on our Board of Directors.” Contact Catalyst and our partners – Direct Women, the Alliance for Board Diversity, Women Corporate Directors, ION–for recommendations. Become part of the solution: Make it your personal priority to meet and get to know at least 10 women whom you would enthusiastically sponsor for corporate Board service.

Take personal responsibility for setting the tone. Commit to anti-sexism as a way of life, in all of your spheres of influence.

Our sons need to see women leaders in order to experience and embrace a culture where everyone is valued. And if our daughters see and hear only men in leadership, what do they learn about themselves and their value in the world?

Your voices and your actions can take women from being worth less to being worth more, to being valued in workplaces and society. And I guarantee you this: Your voice will multiply. It will inspire others. It will build momentum. It will change workplaces and change lives.

This Catalyst article was featured on page 10 in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of Profiles in Diversity Journal