Mars Incorporated recently released the results of a groundbreaking new listening study, #HereToBeHeard, focusing on elevating the voices of women. Commissioning such a study may seem odd from a CPG company that is historically known for its candy production, but women have always played a significant role in the leadership at Mars. Speaking with Stefanie Straub, VP & General Counsel of Mars Incorporated, she shared that Mars feels a responsibility to be a leading global company in gender equity and recognizes that a more inclusive society is not only good for their employees but good for business and economies overall. When COVID caused a global pandemic, Mars decided as a company that they wanted to do more to influence broader changes.
#HereToBeHeard asked more than 10,000 women from 88 countries one deceptively simple question: What needs to change so more women can reach their full potential?
Their answers were deeply personal and came from a wide range of women from all races, generations, backgrounds, and cultures. Their answers were also complex, calling out many challenges women face in the workplace and at home that keep women from reaching their full potential. Mars then worked with BSR and a team of scientists from Oxford University’s Saïd Business School to analyze the women’s responses and group them into eight key themes.
The number one theme shared by 80% of respondents: We must end systemic discrimination and harmful gender stereotypes.
As one participant shared: “A new system is needed: one where women are conceived of as strong, respected, and with the same abilities as any human being, without any prejudice. Different possibilities are needed for each woman, including transgender, Indigenous, immigrant, single mothers.” — Mexico, 18–24 years old, self-employed, mixed-race/ethnicity, bisexual
Listen to the voices directly from these women. You hear their passion, their desire for change and the pain they feel navigating through the current system that clearly isn’t working. To make matters worse, according to the World Economic Forum, the pandemic set back the trajectory to close the gender gap by a generation, moving from 100 years to now 136. It’s not because the solutions aren’t out there, but that to move the needle on gender equity, we must address systemic failures top to bottom.
The entire system needs to shift, from governmental policies to building companies and organizations where women can thrive to the home, where individuals must shift their expectations of gender roles and how they manage caregiving and unpaid labor.
Straub has personally felt these challenges in her own life, juggling her professional demands with those of her family. She attributes her success to the support she received from her manager and the flexibility she was granted in her work life. However, Straub is adamant that the opportunity for women to reach their full potential should not rely on the luck of winning the boss lottery, but instead should be embedded into the culture of their organization.
As part of a global company, Straub recognizes the complexity facing companies as they take a holistic approach, and she urges company leaders to listen to the personal stories and voices of their own employees. They are key to understanding and unlocking all of the areas holding women back in their organizations. “Businesses often move quickly to offer solutions, but there is something quietly radical about asking an open question, taking the time to listen and then acting with women, not just on their behalf” shared, Christine Svarer, BSR Director, HERproject. Svarer continues “the recommendations included in the #HereToBeHeard report are relevant and useful to any company committed to advancing gender equity – but they are only a starting point. Transformational change ultimately requires continued engagement. By purposefully giving women a meaningful role in decision-making, they can help to create the programs and policies required to address the barriers facing women of all backgrounds and create a more equitable, inclusive world.”
Straub agrees and cautions companies not to just choose one theme or area to tackle but to commit to a holistic approach across all themes. In #HereToBeHeard, the overarching theme to end systemic gender discrimination requires organizations to evaluate all the key areas in their company system that are contributing to that discrimination. The report urges companies to assess equal career opportunities and women’s decision-making power; how they are supporting parents, work-life balance, and mental and physical wellbeing; and how they influence and support gender-equal learning and put an end to gender-based harassment and violence.
Mars has committed to transformation change that takes a holistic approach and has launched Full Potential, a program that is focused on making changes across their own workplace, in their sourcing communities and in the marketplace at large. Mars uses this platform to set purposeful standards for its organizations across all areas of its business and regions. They are then able to evaluate and learn from those standards to continue to adapt and make necessary changes at the site or local levels.
Ending systemic discrimination in workplaces requires the commitment from executive leaders to take a comprehensive approach and to utilize strategic change management tools to shift behaviors and mindsets across all levels. And it has to be done in partnership with male leaders and employees.
One thing Straub found particularly interesting in the results of the report is that 71% of respondents shared how men need to change. Men are the gatekeepers, the participants voiced again and again, and they can either be the ally and support women need or the barrier to change.
Another women in the study shared: “Men need to change…. Men have to choose to be different on their own, and until that happens, I think it’s going to be very hard for women to reach our full potential.”– U.S., 35–44 years old, self-employed, mental health/emotional disability, physical disability, Black/African descent, heterosexual
We saw exactly how men can be a barrier just this week in the U.S. when Senator Joe Manchin, a 74-year-old white male, blocked the inclusion of paid family leave for millions for families in the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. The blow felt deeply personal to women, who once again were put at the mercy of a leader who many feel does not understand what it is like to have to choose between a paycheck and being able to care for yourself, your newborn or ill child, or elderly parent.
In order for systemic change to occur, especially within companies, the changes must not only break down the barriers for women but also proactively shift the behaviors of men. For example, paid parental leave programs offered by companies should be equally provided to birthing and non-birthing parents and the default expectation should be set that all new parents will take their full leave. When it comes to workplace flexibility and the nature of where and when work gets done, companies need to ensure they are providing options to all employees. In addition, they must provide managers with the skills and time to manage and coach a hybrid team. Employee experiences, from onboarding to learning and upskilling to performance management tools, must adapt to provide opportunities to all employees and reduce bias against those employees that work remotely more often.
These are simply examples, and there is a lot of work to be done. As the #HereToBeHeard report demonstrates, companies must start by listening to the real stories of their employees and commit to taking a holistic, strategic approach to solving the gender gap in their organizations.