Lorna Donatone
Lorna Donatone
CEO, Sodexo Schools Worldwide President, Sodexo North America

Gender equity in business should not be an issue.

This country has more women with secondary degrees than men. Close to half of the labor force is female. In my thirty-year career, I’ve witnessed a sea change in attitude about women in the workplace.

And yet, it is a problem. Glass ceilings are real. We can break them, but first we have to ask ourselves why they exist and why companies motivated to support change end up with lopsided leadership.

The fact that diverse teams deliver better results is well documented. For instance, my own company commissioned an internal review and found that gender-balanced management teams (at least 40-60 percent ratios) performed better on employee engagement, brand image and client satisfaction. The balanced teams also saw increased profits. It wasn’t the women themselves, but the mix of genders, that produced better outcomes.

The findings led Sodexo CEO Michel Landel to commit that by 2025 Sodexo would have 40% women in senior leadership ranks, an area where the percent of women tapers off.

The question of why disparity lingers, at a time of explosive growth in female education and employment, is a tough one.

Inequity is rarely the result of overt bias. There are certainly instances of professional sexism, but they tend to be the outliers. Our laws and culture are not perfect in refuting bias, but they have changed for the better.

Also, the vast majority of us recognize how professional gender equity directly correlates to societal gender equity. It creates role models that motivate young people, encourages empowerment and improves livelihoods and lives.

Even with many of us acknowledging these benefits, progress is too slow. The barriers now are more likely to be unconscious biases (of both men and women), workplace cultures and policies that do not create an inclusive culture where women can advance and succeed. There are too many inequities embedded in our offices and our brains.

How can we combat such nebulous foes?

Head-on. We must examine the cultures in our workplaces and ensure that they are inclusive so that all can succeed. We must engage men in the solutions. We must support the advancement of women through sponsorship and mentoring.

We also need to take a deeper look at our pipelines to power. For instance, a company may expand opportunities for women to become managers, but the title alone does not put women in the running for the next level. If female managers are less likely to work with senior managers or have limited portfolios, they are less likely to be considered for top management.

A recent study by McKinsey and LeanIn.org found that only one-fifth of female vice presidents had profit and loss responsibilities, which is typically considered necessary experience for moving higher.

I can attest to the fact that confronting these “softer” issues leads to tangible results. Sodexo has made gender equity a priority for a decade – with both formal and informal policies and programs that address bias, training, work-life issues and mentoring, among others. Today, women represent 50 percent of our board and 32 percent of our group senior executives.

This didn’t happen by accident. We’re in an industry with just 10 percent female top leadership. Our improvements came, and will continue, because of a concerted, research-based, results-oriented approach that we continually refine.

We are in good company on this. I was proud to be among more than 150 CEOs who signed on with The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion. It’s an effort that brings business leaders together to share best practices and learn from each other when it comes to diversity and inclusion – gender equity included.

Together, we understand that we are not done. We are always looking to learn more from each other and from the broader community. Please share what is working at your company. We can make faster progress working together.

*Pictured above: Red Robin CEO Carin Stutz, me, former Darden CDO Laurie Burns, Coca-Cola VP Susan Gambardella and former WFF CEO the late Fritzi Woods 

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