At BrightHouse 80% of our leadership is female, 100% of our female leaders have dual career families, and overall BrightHouse is 70% female – in a field that is traditionally +70% male, so when our parent company BCG was interested in increasing female success at higher levels we volunteered to research insights with our luminary network for the Women @ BCG initiative. At BrightHouse, we’ve created a method that works for women, but we learned it will take a lot of work to make this model work for everyone.
I was nervous when I walked into my job interview at BrightHouse. It was an amazing job, exactly what I was looking for – but adding to the typical interview jitters was the fact that I was six months pregnant. Early in my career I worked on a team that relegated women to support roles, I felt the pangs of gender discrimination even not pregnant. But what I would come to learn after being hired was that BrightHouse does a lot of things right – not just for ambitious women, but for all the working parents, and non-parents alike. In the last year we embarked on a journey to understand this topic more deeply — with the hopes of attaining actionable solutions for our organization and those of our clients — and we came away with a few big insights worth sharing.
We ask “why” a lot at BrightHouse, we ask “why” of ourselves and “why” of our clients. We ask small “whys” – why do we have to work a certain way – and big “whys” – why do we desire to succeed? So, when we wanted to understand the challenges of women in the workforce face, we naturally started with “why”.
Despite women attending and graduating from colleges and graduate schools at higher rates than men, women in leadership remain sparse 1. Why? We talked with our Luminaries (read our blog What is a Luminary?), who are experts in divergent fields, to help us grapple with this question. A Luminary who is an expert on language pointed to the way children learn to play as the root of our gender biases. Boys play fight while girls play house, making our expectation for adult men to compete and women to reconcile. While this had the hallmark of truth from our lived experiences, when we talked with a Luminary who specializes in human biology, she pointed out there is no difference between the male and female brain. This led to an interesting insight: While social norms have created our current reality, it is not inevitable.
So, if we can begin to understand biases contributing to the gap between men and women in the workforce, how do we change them? We talked to Luminaries about that too. A psychologist gave us a formula to ponder: Aspiration plus Reality equals Ambition. The problem for industries like consulting and law – where men thrive and women often struggle – isn’t women’s aspirations but women’s reality. The Boston Consulting Group, our parent company, is committed to increasing the number of women in leadership. BCG surveyed the global workforce and found that the junior female consultants started out with as much or more ambition as the junior male consultants. Yet, as they progressed in their careers the ambition of women seemed to drop 2. Female ambition drops when they reach a point in their career where the reality of successful female role-models dwindles.
Why is this our reality, especially with recent advances in educational attainment and workforce participation? Norway is the first country to adopt gender quotas for their boards – the most senior leadership of an organization. The law created a 40% quota for women on boards of companies. Initial academic research found that the companies that had to comply with this quota performed worse than they would have otherwise 3. The explanation offered – there were not enough women with the qualifications to be on boards, so the less qualified women filled the required spots. The Norway example strikes me as similar to the situation of our first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Conner. When Justice O’Conner went to her first interview at a big law firm after law school she was offered a secretarial position. This was after finishing at the top of her class at Stanford. With that level of discrimination, it is no wonder that at the time of her appointment to the Supreme Court, her qualifications seemed to trail the male candidates.
Both these examples lead to today’s reality — women lose their ambition because the reality of women in leadership is limited. So we have fewer women in leadership shaping the reality for others. It is unsatisfying – but I have hope.
At BrightHouse, we are not waiting for change: 80% of our leadership is female, 100% of our female leaders have dual career families and, and overall BrightHouse is 70% female – and this is in a field that is traditionally +70% male. BrightHouse is a place where women can match their ambition with reality. Here are the things that make a difference to me as a mom of two small boys. We create real flexibility for everyone, and we all take advantage of it. This removes the stigma that often accompanies flexibility. We also embrace the messy reality of having kids, from the noise they make on conference calls when you are working from home, to the easy acceptance of kids in the office when the Atlanta weather forecast predicts “snow” and the day care is closed at the last minute.
At BrightHouse our Purpose is to find and shine the light in the world. There are many companies that are making amazing strides for women, and I am proud that we are one of them. It is my hope that our light helps other companies think about proactively changing the reality for women in leadership.