Opinion | Karen Kaplan

Why we (still) need more women and diverse leaders

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I’m moved today, International Women’s Day, to consider the kind of workplace our daughters and granddaughters will have, not just here, but across the world. We want them to be able to succeed without feeling pressure to compromise their integrity or physical safety. We want them to earn equal pay for equal work. Most important, we want them to feel empowered to speak up — whether for themselves or their colleagues. How do we get there?

Every day it seems the current reckoning over sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace conduct claims yet another senior executive. Thankfully, change is happening; it feels like we’re in the midst of a revolutionary power shift. But what are the long-term effects of this epidemic — on women, on business, and on culture? Two recent studies suggest they’re serious and far reaching.

We recently conducted a research study highlighting how single women present themselves from a professional, social, and dating perspective. On the professional front, results showed that roughly 1 in 5 women have decided not to pursue a professional opportunity because of sexual harassment. Forty percent said that sacrificing professional opportunities because of harassment at work happens “often.” Imagine the talent wasted.


Women know the odds are stacked against them, no matter how talented or experienced they are. A recent study in Harvard Business Review found that stay-at-home moms are half as likely to get a job interview as unemployed mothers and fathers with identical resumes. Our study also found that half of women who would not share their current parental status on a professional profile also would not reveal if they want children. I find it striking that in 2018, professional women don’t feel comfortable admitting a biological desire to do the one thing powerful men can’t do.

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Sexual harassment, inappropriate workplace conduct, and gender inequity are longtime injustices that are only beginning to be exposed and addressed. Aside from being a potentially criminal and moral issue, for companies it is also a productivity issue. Make no mistake: If your employees don’t feel safe at work, your business is underperforming. No one can do her best work when she doesn’t feel valued.

It may feel like there is very little we can do as individuals to effect change. But there are two steps we can take as industry leaders, especially if we work together, to make our daughters’ workplaces better. We can change what we do inside our companies, and — in particular for media, advertising, and entertainment — we can change what we put into the world. We have the power to impact culture in positive, meaningful ways. As Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of Procter & Gamble, believes: Doing good for women means doing good for business.

So no matter what your industry is, look inside your own house. Promote women and people of color and those in underrepresented groups. Mentor them. Invest in them. Listen to them. Challenge them to be constantly great, and to fail often. Help them get better every year, with opportunities not quotas. Turn them into the kinds of leaders who can run your company better than you did. That is how change happens.

It’s crucial that change begins internally, but it’s equally important that our values are reflected in the work we put into the world. #WomenNotObjects, the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media, and the Association of National Advertisers’ #SeeHer initiative are just a few examples of organizations that are changing the representation of women in media. How we portray women matters. How we portray people of color matters. So when we involve more women and people of color in how we portray women and people of color — well, you get the idea.


Change begins at home. Put work into the world that would make your daughter and your mother proud. The era of making award-winning but tone-deaf advertising is over. Marketing that drives sales but alienates certain groups is no longer an option. If something seems funny and “harmless” to everyone in the room, look around the room. Does everyone look like you? If the answer is yes, get some other people in the room. And if you can’t find any in your company, you have a bigger problem.

Change begins at home. Inside and out.

Karen Kaplan is chairwoman and CEO of Hill Holliday.