By Kathy Schneider, CMO, Sungard Availability Services

I recently took part in a panel discussion in London to celebrate International Women’s Day 2019, where more than half a dozen business leaders discussed this year’s theme – #BalanceforBetter – as well as things we can all do to inspire women in the workplace.

The panelists represented many sectors of the business landscape, from finance to technology to marketing and consumer goods. While we all concurred there are many obstacles still to overcome in creating a more gender-balanced world, we also agreed there is much progress to celebrate.  The discussion topics ranged from what excites us to what disappoints us, to what we can do to achieve balance. Here are a few of my observations:

What excites me: I’m encouraged to see the rising number of women represented in key leadership roles, from the board room to the corner office, to other key positions in business organizations. Debra Perelman of Revlon, Mary Barra of General Motors, Adena Friedman of Nasdaq and Ginni Rometty of IBM are shining examples of the women leading major corporations. There’s ample proof that gender diversity at the management level also correlates with stronger company performance. What’s more, diversity helps ensure a broader range of skills, experience, expertise and ways of thinking are all available to help a company succeed. It’s also exciting to see the visibility and dialogue around this topic grow and gain the attention of senior executives and boards.

What disappoints me: While there are some amazing women in top positions at major corporations, only 25 women appeared as CEOs on the 2019 S&P list of 500, published by Dow Jones. Moreover, it’s disappointing that in the world’s largest 500 companies, only 10.9 percent of senior executives are women, according to Weber Shandwick’s Gender Forward Pioneer Index. Clearly, there’s still more work to do to create balance in the ranks of executive leadership.

However, this topic and efforts around it should not pit men and women against each other. Nor does it help to focus discussions on negative stereotypical traits of men, like some memes I have seen – some may think it’s funny, but it’s not helpful. Many women (like me) have spouses who have made career sacrifices to enable our progression and success. I have also been supported by male leaders in my career advancement through mentorship, sponsorship and access to development programs.

What creates balance: Companies are urging hiring managers to pursue a more balanced candidate slate when recruiting new workers. In fact, the diversity of the talent pool extends beyond gender – organizations are seeking diversity of all kinds, not only to reflect the mix of the society we live in, but to expand the skill sets they bring to the table. The panel all agreed you get the best outcomes when your teams are diverse, vibrant and collaborative. Having a more balanced workforce gives you a greater ability to solve problems and come up with innovative ideas.

What can I do: Being a mentor to colleagues and other emerging female leaders is an effective way to help develop them. But we also discussed ways we can go beyond mentorship. I am a big advocate of sponsorship – advocating for someone to make sure they are visible for their capabilities and achievements and considered for the right next job. When you’re in an executive position as a woman, I feel it’s critical to be a champion for others: put yourself out there and endorse people for their skills. If a role becomes available for someone you mentor or know would be great, advocate for that person. Sponsorship is a key driver for anyone – it’s not only important that you’re mentored, but that you are sponsored as you seek a key role.

One of the things I found interesting at the end of the panel was the moderator’s challenge to pick an object that symbolizes simplicity to us. I chose a seashell that I found on the beach several years ago.  Given how busy our lives are, my favorite way to relax and reconnect with my family is very simple – sitting on a beach, enjoying the view of the sea and finding pretty shells. I kept the shell not only because it’s a beautiful and almost perfect nautilus shell, but also because it represents my “happy place” – the simplicity of relaxing and spending time with my family.

It’s not lost on me that seashells could rival the most complicated objects created by human beings in terms of their beauty, strength and design. They’re the tough, protective exoskeletons of marine mollusks, which become the home for each creature’s complete life. As a result, shells are viewed as symbols of individuality, privacy, and self-reliance. They represent the perfect balance between earth and sea.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I hope everyone can find the balance in their own lives, workplaces, and communities. Balance drives a better working world. Let's all help create a #BalanceforBetter.

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