By Sallie Krawcheck
January 18, 2017

There is so much research out there showing that gender diversity leads to better business results—and not by a little, but by a lot. Promoting women to powerful positions has been shown to improve corporate culture, company performance, the economy, and society.

But that doesn’t mean we can count on our employers to hand us leadership positions, treat us well, or pay us what we’re worth just because it’s the right thing to do, or because the research shows it’s in their own best interest. Let’s face it: this has been an issue for years and years, and progress on gender diversity in corporate America is still occurring at a glacial pace. Anyone want to wait another 150 years for pay equity?

I’ve probably worked with as many men in senior positions in business as anyone else out there. I’ve probably walked into as many conference rooms and interrupted as many guys deep in conversation as anyone else out there. And you know what I’ve never heard? “Hey, Sallie. Funny you should walk in now. We were just discussing the importance of gender diversity in driving corporate performance.”

Never.

Not once.

So if we want these conversations to be had—and we do—it’s up to us to start them.

If we want change on our timelines and on our terms, we need to have what Ellyn Shook, the chief human resources officer of Accenture, recently called “courageous conversations” about gender inequality and sexism in the workplace. If we don’t, the guys may eventually get it, and things may eventually change. But I don’t want to sit around and wait for the guys to get with the program. Do you?

Sheryl Sandberg initiated a “courageous conversation” with the publication of Lean In. (And the initial backlash demonstrated just how courageous she was.) Anne-Marie Slaughter initiated a “courageous conversation”—and, for a time, something of a firestorm—with her article in The Atlantic that basically said women couldn’t “have it all.” And Judith Williams certainly initiated a “courageous conversation” at the 2015 SXSW conference when she called out Eric Schmidt for repeatedly interrupting the CTO of the United States government, Megan Smith, on the subject of gender inequities in tech (of all things). Oh, and Williams runs Google’s Global Diversity and Talent Program, which makes Schmidt the chairman of her company, and her boss. Now those are some courageous conversations.

You don’t have to write a book, or take the stage at SXSW, or be a CEO to initiate your own courageous conversation.

We all have the power to bring about change, individually and collectively, and the way we do that is by starting conversations in our own workplaces.

Courageous conversations don’t have to be just about the big stuff, either; they don’t have to address the systemic roots of sexism in society or tackle closing the gender pay gap. What I found worked best early in my career were quick, no-blame, emotionless, one-on-one conversations. The more facts and research I could bring to it, the better. “Hey, David, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but you spoke over me a few times in that meeting.” spoke over me a few times in that meeting.” Or: “I was reading recently that we’re more likely to dismiss women’s recommendations for other women. I know I have. I hope I can count on you to give Susie strong consideration.”

You can initiate a courageous conversation about apparent gender inequities in the workplace, such as a woman not being offered a big assignment on the assumption she won’t want it because she’s pregnant. (You’d better believe I saw this happen.) Or a women getting dinged for being “aggressive” in her performance review while a man is celebrated for it. (I saw this, too.) Or a male co-worker condescending to or “man-terrupting” a female peer.

The conversations can—and I hope, will—happen at all levels of an organization, and in the all the ways we are each comfortable having them. I’m comfortable discussing these topics even in a bigger group—not to shame people, but to coach and share with the group, usually using myself as the example of the person who learned the lesson. But that took a long, long time to get to.

Not sure how to approach these?

Get advice from your HR contact on how to engage; perhaps better yet from a more senior mentor; and perhaps even better from a more senior female mentor who has experience with this.

Make no mistake: it’s worth it. Initiating these conversations can work. One time I saw a lone board member go against the rest of the board to ask to see the company’s pay rate by gender, and then convince the board to give the women raises to get rid of the gap. It was beautiful.

And while I may have considered these “courageous conversations” to be risky in the past (worried that I’d upset someone, or goodness forbid come off as a hysterical and raging feminist), I now believe that it may be riskier not to have them.

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If we’re not having these conversations, those old gender expectations and beliefs that have in part kept us from moving forward professionally will continue on, unchallenged.

Research shows that they work on a broader scale. As one example, research done by She Should Run, a group dedicated to getting women elected, has shown that when sexist comments are made about female candidates—either nasty ones, like “She’s an airhead,” or even seemingly complimentary ones, like “She’s got great legs”—the female candidate suffers in the polls. If, however, that female candidate calls out those comments as being sexist, her poll results improve.

We have to pick our battles, of course. And timing can be everything. This may not be a conversation one necessarily wants to have on the first day in a new job. We are more likely to be effective once we have built up some political capital. But in general, having more courageous conversations over the course of our day-to-day work will keep the issue on the front burner and educate those around us. Ultimately, awareness and education are what lead to progress on any type of cultural issue like this.

I firmly believe that owning these conversations can position each of us as true leaders, for taking a principled and educated stance on what is clearly the right side of history.

Sallie Krawcheck is author of Own It: The Power of Women at Work. She is also the CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, an innovative digital investment platform for women. She is Chair of Ellevate Network, the global professional women’s network, and of the Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Index Fund.

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