Utah’s high-tech crowd celebrated International Women’s Day last week by hearing from Malala Yousafzai, the courageous young woman from Pakistan who earned a Nobel Peace Prize by continuing her advocacy for education for women and girls even after being shot by the Taliban.
Yousafzai’s message is one of inclusion and equality, not of conflict. But she rightly noted at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit in Salt Lake City that women still make up only about 20% to 25% of those working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), specifically in the rapidly expanding - in economic value and in importance to all of society - field of artificial intelligence.
This is happening even as, in academia overall, women have made great strides, often outnumbering males in enrollment and graduation rates, at least at the bachelor’s degree level.
The remaining gender gaps - in upper management, in the tech sectors and in pay - won’t fix themselves. And they won’t be fixed by government edict.
People in leadership roles, in the private and the public sectors, need to be aware that women in the workplace still face obstacles that not only make personal achievement more difficult but also deprive their employers of the best efforts of all their staff, male and female.
Utah’s tech sector takes perhaps inordinate pride in being innovative and forward-thinking. It would go a long way to validate that self-image by taking the lead in female-friendly - which would in just about every case also be human-friendly - workplace policies.
For women - and their employers - to make full use of their talents and energy, innovative workplaces need to do more than offer climbing walls and free snacks. They need to normalize such things as the ability for all their employees to work part-time or flexible hours without giving up benefits. Parental leave - for both mothers and fathers - needs to be offered everywhere.
If it turns out that such humane workplace policies benefit women more than men, it just means that they had more needs that weren’t being met.
Workers of both genders can benefit enormously from being noticed, nurtured, mentored by those at the top. If women benefit more than men from such an inclusive attitude, it just means that the talent was always there but more likely to go unobserved and undeveloped.
When government doesn’t mandate such workplace policies, it can still offer incentives, such as tax credits for parental leave or day-care services. Or public sector workplaces can help just by setting examples within their own employee handbooks.
Those who watch politics and law often refer to the states as the “laboratories of democracy.” That is, they are places where states, or local governments, can try out new philosophies, approaches and rules in a way that does not require buy-in from the entire country. If they don’t work, the damage is limited and the experiment more easily abandoned. If they do work, they serve as an example that can be copied by other states or the nation a whole.
The same is true in the private sector, especially in a culture that prides itself on innovation. They are opportunities to serve as what are called incubators, not just for software or services, but for how people’s lives are enhanced, not just funded, by their experiences at work.
Today there are still many accomplished people, male and female, who bridle at being called a feminist. Which is too bad, because all it means, all it has ever meant, is to expect the same for our daughters that we expect for our sons. We want them to be bold, inspirational, empowered, fierce, inspired and inspiring, trusting and trustworthy, to see themselves represented, to seek equality and justice, for themselves and for others.
As Yousafazi said during her visit to Utah, those who lead in making products and offering services also lead in creating culture and, whether they like it or not, whether they realize it or not, are setting standards and making environments that will either promote equality or not.
“Always take a pause and think about how you are influencing and impacting the world around you,” she said.
That’s good advice for those who lead, in government and in business. And it is good advice for everyone.