Powerful Men Hiding Behind ‘Black Box’ Slow Progress of Equality

(Bloomberg) -- It’s time to open the black box.

Across industries, the barriers to diversity start with a common problem, according to many of the executives and activists who spoke at the inaugural Bloomberg Business of Equality summit Tuesday in New York. Many companies, still dominated by white men, remain reluctant to disclose the scope of the problem, let alone fix it.

“We’ve had this conversation locked up in a black box for decades,” said Natasha Lamb, managing partner at Arjuna Capital, which has pressured companies from Apple Inc. to Wells Fargo to disclose pay-gap information over the past two years. “There’s a reason for that. Because where there is money, there is power, and all of these conversations are about power and shifting the power balance.”

You can’t fix what you can’t see, said Elizabeth Nyamayaro, director of the United Nations HeForShe initiative, which has gathered pledges from 30 male leaders in politics, business and academia to make changes for women. Each has agreed to be transparent in their progress, she said.

“We’re living in one of the most exciting moments of our lives,” Nyamayaro told attendees. “We’re at a tipping point, but we actually have to tip the point. We’ve got to actually make very concrete commitments and implement at scale.”

Related story: Women’s prospects for pay and board equality are getting worse

Most of the current data focuses on the gender pay gap and the representation of women on corporate boards or in leadership roles. The two are related: The World Economic Forum estimates that global pay parity is a century away, partly because women don’t have a clear path to the most highly paid jobs.

Executive teams globally slipped to being just 24 percent female from 25 percent in the most recent year, according to Grant Thornton. And among new chief executive officer appointments globally, less than 4 percent went to women in 2016, according to professional services firm PwC.

But at the individual company level, most give little or no information about pay unless required by law, such as in the U.K. Only about 45 percent of companies disclose the gender of directors and about 40 percent reveal the race or ethnicity, according to a detailed analysis of the regulatory filings of 500 of the largest U.S.-listed public companies by Equilar.

Without transparency on pay, it’s hard to identify sexism or even just inequality. Actress Ashley Judd said Michelle Williams was “staggered” to discover she had received a tiny fraction of what Mark Wahlberg was paid for reshoots for “All the Money in the World” -- even though they had the same agency negotiating on their behalf.

“It happens so commonly, especially to women across the workplace -- a shift goes away, the lack of opportunity for overtime, being overlooked for a plum assignment,” Judd said. “Those things hurt American families.”

At least some investors -- Arjuna Capital is one of them -- are calling for change. “Investors are now paying much more attention to a company’s culture and what we’re doing from a social standpoint,” said Susan Salka, chief executive officer of AMN Healthcare Services Inc.

Hedge funds like Bridgewater Associates are known for carefully guarding data on pay in order to preserve a competitive advantage in hiring talent. However, Eileen Murray, Bridgewater’s co-CEO, said she personally would like to see more pay visibility, even though that’s one area Bridgewater keeps closely guarded.

“If people knew what each other made, they’d be very cautious about it,” Murray said, adding that she was speaking about her own views on pay and not the firm’s.

More women need to be in leadership positions, so they can fix the problem from the top down, she said.

“Insist on more women at the top because it’s easier to break the glass ceiling from the top because from the bottom it shatters on you,” Murray said.

On the other hand, James Murren, CEO of MGM Resorts International, says investors don’t care enough. They may talk about wanting companies with a social conscience, he said, “but they’re really looking for companies that are going to make them a lot of money. They talk a good game, but they don’t invest with their integrity at the forefront. I think there’s a huge problem there.”

Fashion legend Diane von Furstenberg said that for #MeToo and Times Up movements to succeed, the message needs to be clearly communicated that “Women are not an accessory.” Female executives are still treated as tokens on boards and in leadership, said the 71-year-old designer, who introduced her iconic wrap dress in 1972.

“Women are strong and they should not be afraid of their strength, and they should practice their strength in a way that is not belittling to a man,” she said. “But they should own it.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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