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Opinion: We Need Female Diplomats and Male Allies to Accelerate Gender Parity

International Women's Day (IWD) is here, along with widespread political and social unrest around the world. For years, women have been commemorating IWD by marching and striking. Many are asking, "What's next? What's that bold action we can take to accelerate gender parity?"

To answer this, I looked back at the past two years:

  • In 2015, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released research stating it would take 81 years to achieve global gender parity in economic participation.
  • A year later, they predicted it would now take 117 years to achieve global gender parity.

It seems gender parity is getting further and further away, with WEF announcing this year:

"At the current rate of change, and given the widening economic gender gap since last year, it will not be closed for another 170 years. The economic gender gap this year has reverted back to where it stood in 2008, after a peak in 2013."

I'm done searching for some new and optimistic way to deal with our entrenched struggle to achieve gender parity. Against this grim backdrop, marching and striking make a lot of sense. But now more than ever, it's time for diplomacy.

Diplomacy Makes Change Happen

This isn't about politeness; we're way beyond that. Diplomacy doesn't mean quiet acquiescence to an unacceptable status quo of backward progress. Diplomatic solutions to the stubborn issues around gender parity will require courage and perseverance to harness the building political momentum.

Last May, I told the graduating class of Babson College that to be effective leaders, they need to be global diplomats with diplomacy at the core of their leadership. Today, as worldwide protests focus on a wide number of issues around equality, we all need to adopt a diplomatic approach to channel this passion into progress.

We need to Be Bold For Change and:

  • Listen to the reasons for genuine concern and anger
  • Remain focused on creating a shared agenda
  • Search for and then pull the levers that drive change

Like it or not, this is how change happens: through tried-and-tested, old-school diplomacy. Marches and strikes that aren't focused on creating a shared agenda through diplomatic effort are not likely to be effective.

Diplomacy Takes Courage — and Engagement

Every one of us must be a diplomat. And diplomacy requires the courage to be who you are. Every person's value derives from their unique perspective on the world. You can't bring your best self to any situation unless you are willing to bring your whole self. And women too often think they have to conform to be heard or to succeed.

Being heard requires just the opposite. We don't get a woman's best unless she is willing to be her unique self, creating "constructive nonconformity" — bringing needed differences to the table to catalyze innovation and stimulate progress.

Current protests are helping women find the way into the world of constructive nonconformity. As a collective, we are owning our confidence and our voice to be exactly who we are.

That is when we can truly do what diplomats do, which is to engage and meet others where they are, whoever they are. Diplomats may not like who they have to deal with — how they act, what they say — but they know that without engagement few solutions are ever found. So, they set that aside and meet their opponents where they are, seeking to understand their point of view. And then they can start the hard work of compromise that follows, always focused on advancing an agenda that in the end is seen as shared.

Diplomats Listen More Than They Talk

Having the courage to know who you are doesn't mean you know everything. And the best way to deal with that is simple: listen more than you talk. For far too long now, when it comes to issues impacting the economic empowerment of women, it's been predominantly women talking to like-minded women.

This is a problem. We know we need to engage men. Yet we sometimes fail to listen to our own advice.

A good example of choosing a diplomatic approach to gender parity was the recent "Women in Securitization" panel at SFIG Vegas, the Structured Finance Industry Group's annual conference. A panel featured four men and just one woman. The organizers intentionally adopted that strategy — getting male leaders to talk about women's advancement and to champion change in their practices of promoting women in the industry. There was a negative reaction from the press and women attendees about the predominance of men on the panel. But that negative reaction demonstrates we are failing to listen to our own advice — that we need to engage men as allies.

Creating allies has long been an effective strategy for LGBT inclusion, and we would be wise to adopt it more aggressively when trying to advance women's issues. Remember: diplomats listen more than they talk, they engage and meet people where they are and they stay focused on an agenda.

Diplomats Compromise

Diplomats see compromise as a strength, not a weakness. They don't view an outcome as a win-win solution where everyone goes away happy. In my experience, compromise is when everyone is marginally unhappy with the solution but agrees to it for the greater good. Each person or group gives up a little to get to a solution that advances a common agenda.

A diplomat is always looking for openings where an agenda can be advanced. They see where levers can be influenced — and levers can appear in unexpected places. A good example recently in the U.S. was the first meeting of the President's Strategic and Policy Forum (which included EY Global Chairman and CEO, Mark A. Weinberger).

The agenda was limited. The obvious items were trade, taxes and regulation. The non-obvious item was the inclusion of women in the workforce. As it did many others, it surprised me to see women as one of the President's priorities. As diplomats, that should catch our attention, in spite of understandable skepticism given the relatively low numbers of women so far in his cabinet and staff. It should prompt us to listen closely, engage and see if we can develop a shared agenda on the subject.

In the UK, Prime Minister May has called on business to join her agenda around inclusive economic growth — and that includes women. Again, as diplomats, there's a possibility here to work on shaping a shared agenda. Similar opportunities are appearing around the world.

What's Next?

The demonstrations around the globe are powerful statements about people's passion and willingness to engage. They are about men and women's refusal to accept the current retreat to where the economic gender gap stood in 2008. What we need to do now is harness this energy and use it to further women's advancement in all areas of life. Diplomacy requires us to say "no" to the unacceptable and then to search for ways to create shared agendas and forward movement. Thoughtful reform evolves and requires personal courage, the ability to engage and listen, and a willingness to compromise. It also takes time and a thick skin.

So, in the face of glacial progress in the advancement of women, it's time for all of us to "toughen up" and put our diplomatic skills into action.

Beth Brooke-Marciniak is the Global Head of Public Policy at Ernst & Young (EY) and an LGBT advocate. She was also recently named one of the Top LGBT Executives by OUTstanding and the Financial Times.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.