Plenty of companies like to say that they offer special initiatives to empower and encourage their women employees. But there’s a major difference between having a few lunch-and-learns a year and having a female-focused program with real deliverables and deadlines.
Enter EY’s “Women. Fast Forward” initiative. The global accounting giant already had several different groups for women but they were dispersed across the corporation without much coordination or interaction. These included a group for women entrepreneurs, a path specifically for female athletes and an internal networking coalition for women at EY. About two years ago, to generate a greater impact, EY brought them together under a single platform: “Women. Fast Forward.”
“We want to be the leading voice for women’s empowerment on a global scale,” Gemma Williams, global marketing leader, for EY’s “Women. Fast Forward” tells Ivy Exec. “Gender parity is going backwards, labor force participation for women is falling, the pay gap is increasing in some areas…This is something that we need to urgently address.”
And for the “Women. Fast Forward” initiative, urgency is the name of the game. To wit, at the top of the platform’s website is a giant countdown clock ticking down from about 170 years from today, showing just how long it will take to achieve gender parity in the workplace unless major changes are made immediately.
“We used world economics data for the gender gap to build the countdown clock,” Williams explains. “We’re using it as a reminder to motivate and to accelerate change.”
Other reminders on the “Women. Fast Forward” platform include economic data about how female leaders can impact a company’s bottom line—after all, EY is an accounting firm at heart. For example, the site points out that companies where a third of the leadership is made up of women can see a higher net margin of up to six percentage points. It also notes that companies with at least one female director statistically outperform those with none.
Williams firmly believes that as a global leader, it’s up to EY to put its money where its mouth is on the issue of gender parity. At the G20, she worked to influence finance ministers to fund women’s policies and initiatives. She even met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the importance of driving the issue of gender parity on a global scale. Already, Williams is looking to the next G20 host, Argentina, to work on promoting this agenda item at the conference there in 2018.
Argentina, in addition to being the host of the next G20, is one of the emerging markets that the “Women. Fast Forward” initiative has targeted for funding women-led enterprises. For example, Williams says that EY is looking in particular to fund women in coding in the South American country.
“Coding is for everyone…Girls should embrace things that they were traditionally steered away from,” Williams explains. She believes that there’s still much work to be done in the digital space. She even hypothesizes that the tech education discrepancy may be to blame for some industries where the pay gap is actually widening. “Men are better educated in these areas and this is something that we need to urgently address: this digital divide in engineering and coding. Women need access to mobile tech, internet, banking so we can level the playing field. Not only for the challenges we know exist presently but also to adjust and prepare for the future we don’t yet know about.”
But as important as it is for EY to effect change for women around the globe and in emerging economies, it is even more critical that the company start by empowering women within its own walls.
“We’re working to lead by example. We’re being very deliberate in creating opportunities to promote our own staff,” Williams says. “For those women at the top, we need to send elevator back down. Women need to be active mentors and sponsors and also promote and encourage the advancement of women within their organizations. And we have to show men how they can help as well.”
But simply promoting women within an organization isn’t enough. Williams explains that companies need to provide a work environment that is particularly accommodating to women who are often expected to go above and beyond in their home and family lives.
“People expect to have blended careers and a flexible working environment,” Williams says. “Companies will need to be more progressive with their thinking. They’ll need to give employees time off when they need it to care for an elderly family member or to have a child. Some employers are doing this and it’s progressive. It has demonstrated greater employee loyalty. But it’s a challenge to move to this model.”
EY is also looking to support women entrepreneurs—not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s good for business.
“Data shows investors get a better return in women-led businesses,” Williams points out. “Women lack access to investment opportunities, investors and finances. Providing women access to financing is critical.”
And while Williams and EY lead the way to provide resources and access to women in business around the world, she also has some advice for those who are looking to rise up the ladder on their own.
“Say yes, put your hand up, discover who you are and what you’re good at. Don’t limit yourself. Expose yourself to challenges,” Williams offers. “Be fearless and don’t be afraid to fail.”
For women already in the middle of their careers looking for the way to make the next big leap, she urges them to be assertive.
“Ask for pay raise. Women work hard and do good work. They think this will grant them a raise but it often does not come this way. Women should be far more assertive in understanding their own worth and not being afraid about having difficult conversations. Practice in the mirror if you need to–but do it,” Williams says.