• Mar 13 2024

Strategic, Courageous, and Consistent: How to be a co-conspirator to accelerate gender parity in the workplace

Gender parity in the workplace has shown modest improvement over the last few decades, however, women are still drastically underrepresented in corporate leadership, especially women of color. Today, just over 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and only 1% are women of color. According to a 2022 McKinsey report, at our current rate of progress, women will not reach gender parity with men in positions of corporate leadership until the year 2060. 

Progress is not happening fast enough. Meanwhile, corporations are failing women and missing out on valuable talent. Organizational behavior expert and author Ella Bell Smith argues that in order to accelerate gender parity, women of all racial identities must forge strong workplace relationships, or “co-conspiracies,” to drive systemic change. 

That is the subject of her leadership development experience, “Building Courageously Inclusive Workplaces.” Co-created with Tuck Executive Education at Dartmouth and offered through ExecOnline’s on-demand learning and coaching platform, the program offers women practical advice on how to collaborate to drive systemic change at their organization.

ExecOnline interviewed Smith to learn more about how women can work together to become powerful agents of change. 

When it comes to women supporting women in the workplace, you make a distinction between “allyship” and “co-conspiratorship.” What’s the difference between an ally and a co-conspirator? 

Increasingly, we hear the word allyship being used in the corporate setting, which is great. But I don’t see, and the numbers don’t show, that allyship is having the impact it should have. 

Allies are great, but allies have a choice. When it comes to advocating for others, they get to ask “what’s in it for me?” and “how much can I challenge the status quo before it starts to impact my own reputation and status?” and “is right now the right time for me to be an ally?”

Allies may recognize the problem and be willing to help, but are allies really going to push for change when the act of pushing comes with a risk to their own status? 

Co-conspiratorship is multicultural and everyone is accountable; everyone’s reputation is on the line in the push for change.

Ella Bell Smith

Co-conspirators, on the other hand, are in it together. We roll up our sleeves and work to achieve our shared goals. Co-conspirators don’t have to be buddy-buddy. They need to be strategic, bold, and consistent in their collective efforts to achieve equity for all women, even the women at the bottom of the totem pole. And, importantly, co-conspirators take strategic action

Co-conspirators look hard at their organizations, and at the data that reveals gaps and discrepancies in the leadership pipeline–both between men and women, and between women of different racial identities. Co-conspirators want to know the strategic plan to address those discrepancies and are willing to push that strategy, even when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable. 

Co-conspiratorship is multicultural and everyone is accountable–everyone’s reputation is on the line in the push for change. 

What are the metrics that co-conspirators should be using to measure their impact on gender equity at their organizations? 

Look at the leadership pipeline at every level of your organization. What are the advancement opportunities for women working at your company’s call center, for example? Are there any development pathways for these employees to reach higher levels of employment and leadership? How much budget is being spent on meaningful development opportunities that meet women where they are at in their level of employment or leadership?

Consider the education programs offered at your organization. Who is selected to participate in those programs? Historically, high-level development opportunities have gone mostly to white men and seldom to women of color. Your company may point to development opportunities for women offered through Employee Resource Groups. But what are those opportunities? And are they actually putting women on track for leadership positions? 

You can also look at turnover rates among all women. Are women churning in entry-level positions because they have no pathways for growth or promotion at the company? Are women in middle management walking away from your company after spending a few years stuck in the same position? On average, how long do women spend at one level of leadership without promotion compared to their male counterparts? 

These are just a few of the metrics that can start to paint a picture of the level of equity at your organization, and give you a place to start measuring your impact over time. It’s a long process, and the work doesn’t end. We must stay accountable to these and other indicators of equity.  

At the individual level, how can women start a “co-conspiratorship”? 

To borrow from the late John Lewis, you can seek out other women and ask, “Do you want to start some good trouble with me?” 

If you really want to make change, start a conversation about the change you want to see and be authentic. Go into that conversation knowing that you have a lot to learn about your co-conspirators and they have a lot to learn about you. Every individual brings unique perspective and experiences to the table; what you have in common is that you all know things need to change, and that women of every racial identity will benefit from the changes you seek to make together. No one group of women alone can make the changes that need to be made when it comes to realizing gender parity. 

As a co-conspirator, you must be eagle-eyed in holding yourself and others accountable for your goals. Co-conspiratorship isn’t kumbaya. It isn’t happy hour. It is strategy, consistency, and courage.

Ella Bell Smith

For example, White women are represented in leadership in much higher numbers than Black, Asian, Indigenous, and Hispanic women. However, White women are still drastically underrepresented compared to their male counterparts. It is going to take all of us working together to lift all of us up. 

Go in acknowledging that in order for the co-conspiratorship to work, there has to be skin in the game for everyone. If you’re a woman in a senior leadership role, be prepared to listen to women in middle and lower management roles about the issues and barriers they’re facing, and be prepared to use your position to do something about it. Do not just “pass the buck” to the HR or diversity and inclusion teams, hold yourself accountable. 

As a senior leader, it may feel like you have more to lose by pushing against the status quo. But being a co-conspirator means being bold and courageous. You need to say to yourself, “To get more women up here–women that don’t look like me–it means I have to risk something.” 

As a co-conspirator, you must be eagle-eyed in holding yourself and others accountable to your goals. Co-conspiratorship isn’t kumbaya. It isn’t happy hour. It is strategy, consistency, and courage. 

What advice do you have for women who feel their organization does not meaningfully support progress toward gender equity? 

Don’t wait for your organization to change. Take the power, take the influence, and take the agency. Your organization will not change until you have the power and influence to make them change. And how do you gain that power and influence? By creating a strong delegation of women saying “enough.”

We need to accelerate progress toward gender and racial parity in corporate leadership. If we keep going at this pace, my granddaughter (who is 11) will be entering the workforce facing the same workforce inequities we’re facing now. And that is unacceptable. 

This work of co-conspiracy is hard, but it is doable. It takes being consistent, and it takes being courageous and bold. Women do not have time to wait to be our best selves, to be our most innovative selves, at work. Companies can’t afford to wait to be a place where women want to work and are able to make an impact at every level of leadership.

About Ella Bell Smith

Ella Bell Smith is professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, where she is founder and director of the Tuck Initiative on Workplace Inclusion. Smith’s research focuses on the career and life histories of professional African-American and European-American women, as well as on life/work balance.

Smith is the founding director of the Tuck School at Dartmouth’s Initiative on Workplace Inclusion. She co-authored Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity with Stella M. Nkomo.

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