Lessons From The PayPal Gender Equality Panel Debacle

3 things companies need to do to get serious about advancing women

Let’s give PayPal an A for effort and a C- on execution on their women’s initiative. In case you missed it, late last month Paypal announced a Gender Equality and Inclusion in the Workforce Panel.  The only problem was the panel consisted of all men. The internet was awash with how out-of-step this looked.

The program was organized by Unity, Women@Paypal, and the group’s President, Nolwenn Godard quickly stated, “Our intent was to bring together our male allies to work with us on inclusion. The title of the panel was ‘Gender Equality and Inclusion in the Workplace: a Conversation with our Male Allies’. Unfortunately, the full title and the intention of the panel did not make it onto the initial posters that have been the subject of commentary.”  

The global head of culture and inclusion at PayPal, LaFawn Bailey, was left to clean this up. She quickly issued a powerful blog post on the company’s website stating, “Gender equality is not just a women’s issue. It will take all of us to create an inclusive workplace environment where involvement, respect, collaboration and connections are cultivated.” But the damage was done.

Bailey went on to explain and offer a solution, “Since this is an all-male panel sharing their experiences and support, some people saw and questioned the wisdom behind the line-up on women’s equality.  This is understandable on face value. We should have emphasized that the women in our community will also be full participants in the discussion.” Ms. Godard was added to the panel to moderate the discussion.

Rather than pile-on this misstep, I want to applaud PayPal for engaging men in a conversation about advancing women.

Rather than pile-on this misstep, I want to applaud PayPal for engaging men in a conversation about advancing women. Male engagement to support the recruitment, retention and advancement of women is critical and necessary as men are still in charge 85% of the time in most organizations.

As a white male in the diversity industry, I can empathize with Ms. Bailey and Ms. Godard. Missteps happen. Establishing solutions to inequalities is not easy; there are numerous cultural, social and political pitfalls and layers of business norms to cut through.  

I am a young Boomer; I began my career in field sales. I’ll admit that I was an enforcer of the “man-code” – those social norms that define male behavior. Sales calls and meetings were time to be a winner, challenge each other with better sales numbers, drinking capabilities and stories – it was a man’s world. Then, I drew the short straw and was selected to lead diversity training at the corporate headquarters. While running that training session I heard stories of racism and sexism and homophobia and I had a white-male epiphany. I came to understand the privilege of being a white male — both in my personal and professional life. I realized the established business norms created tremendous advantages for men. Men invented the business system. They run the system. And now, men must be involved in evolving the system.

Several of some of my male friends and colleagues drifted away as my HR/diversity career grew. I realized that by challenging the status quo I am breaking the “man code” and disrupting entrenched norms. However as a husband and the father of a daughter, I realized the reasonability I had to do this work.

I understand that as a white male working to creating change and correct inequalities – to create a level playing field for talent in the workplace – some people may feel threatened or worry that they will lose something in the process. The greater epiphany is that there is something to be gained by all parties to attract, retain and advance talent.

Let’s use the Paypal scenario as a teachable moment regarding the three things companies need to do to get serious about advancing women.

1) Integrated Leadership Strategy. Companies must create truly integrated women’s leadership strategy. They must reframe the initiative and treat it like a business imperative. Is your company really committed to advancing women? Think about your most recent New Product introduction or big M&A plan. Was that was led by a group of volunteers and given no real money? Even in companies with ultra-aggressive women’s advancement programs, few companies have less than 3 full-time equivalents doing this work. By any business equation, commitment equals resources: people and money.

2) Transparency. As I work with Fortune 500 clients the issue is always raised regarding tracking and publicizing what your organization looks like by gender, race, salary and job title. No one wants to publish this information because it is downright embarrassing. This often puzzles me. We measure every possible metric in the organization but heaven forbid we track women’s advancement rates.

Silicon valley actually posted their numbers this last summer and surprisingly they are not great. This interactive chart compiled by the Wall Street Journal illuminates the issue:

You cannot diagnose a problem until you have acknowledged you have one. (And in case you’re wondering about Paypal, they have one woman on their board and two on their executive team.

3) Be Visible. Senior leadership must be committed and engaged as in most organizations men are still in charge. I have found that 30 % of men actually do want to support advancing women but most don’t know what to do. I am certain each of the men on the PayPal panel is genuine in their intent to support women. The problem is most men don’t know how or what to do.

The model I have found most helpful comes from Australia and is called the Male Champions of Change. They have three simple things men can do, Listen, Learn and Lead.  

The problem with most men and most organizations is that they start with Lead. We have a belief that senior leaders are amazingly gifted when it comes to women’s leadership advancement and creating cultural change. The truth is most are not. Most think giving speeches of commitment is the beginning and the end of their jobs.

I think this is where Paypal and most organizations get an A for effort and a C- on execution. So before we beat PayPal up too badly let’s give them kudos for trying to do the right thing. I am certain next time their execution will match their strategy.

Jeffery Tobias Halter is a corporate gender strategist.  The country’s leading expert on engaging men to advance women, Jeffery is the President of YWomen, a strategic consulting company.  The former Director of Diversity Strategy of The Coca-Cola Company, Jeffery has worked with leading companies including McDonald’s, Deloitte, Publicis Groupe, GE and more.  Jeffery’s latest book WHY WOMEN, The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men, is the first business book written by a man on how companies can advance women to enhance the company.  A highly sought-after speaker, Jeffery is aTEDx speaker and frequently talks at industry and corporate events.

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