What difference does it make if an organization hosts an all-male panel? An excuse we’ve heard often at GenderAvenger is “We weren’t focused on gender. We were focused on getting the best people in the field,” which implies that there aren't any qualified women available to speak, or that they aren’t the “best”. The reality is, qualified women are out there, and many times they are the “best”, but they may not be in the same networks as the conference organizers. The answer? Dig a little deeper.
Steve Odland, President and CEO of the Committee for Economic Development (CED) not only talks the talk, he walks the walk when it comes to including women’s voices. His reason: “If you have a panel of four and they all look alike, all have the same experiences, then you have groupthink. You have to have people with different kinds of experiences, and we think gender is a part of that. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the same opinion, but it is interesting to listen to people who come at things from a different frame of reference, and I think it makes for a more robust and interesting discussion.”
The CED has a storied history, one that Odland states frankly did not start with diversity. Founded in 1942 when President Roosevelt convened a “Who’s Who” of CEOs to provide policy advice on keeping the peace after World War II and shoring up the economy to avoid a recession, it has had a powerful impact, providing the thinking that went into The Marshall Plan, The Bretton Woods Agreement, and The Employment Act of 1946.
Today, the nonprofit, nonpartisan business group continues to work on some of the nation’s most critical issues including sustainable capitalism, early childhood education, K-12 and post-secondary education, campaign finance reform, and fiscal health. In 2012, CED added increasing the number of women on corporate boards to its policy focus. That’s a long way from 1942 when the CEOs were, as Odland says, “all guys.”
Odland says because the makeup of organization has included CEOs and other senior business leaders, it has historically been mostly male in its membership. Prior to his joining CED a little more than a year ago, the 200 trustees fit that profile. “One of my goals was to come in and broaden it,” he says. “We’ve added 100 trustees in the past year, about half of those added were women, so now we’re up to 52. It’s good but not where it needs to be yet. I’m determined to improve upon that.” By expanding membership to include mid-size companies, public and private, CED has broadened the voices and perspectives it lends to the issues.
Odland and CED came to our attention when GenderAvenger friend Lenny Mendonca nominated them to the GenderAvenger Hall of Fame for CED's Spring Policy Conference. Of the 30 speakers, there were 15 men and 15 women.
We got in touch with Odland and asked about the balance in the speaker line-up. “It is important to us because we think the broadest voice is the good voice,” he says.
Odland is equally committed to increasing the number of women on corporate boards through CED’s Women’s Economic Contribution initiative. CED’s work to include women on boards is not unique, he says, but “for an old line organization, I think this is unusual. I’m proud of the efforts we’ve made, especially given how we’ve changed this organization in a short period of time, and it tells me this kind of change can happen elsewhere.”
As with finding speakers, he doesn’t think finding qualified women for Boards is difficult, but if companies continue to follow the old formula, nothing will change. Odland says, “If you start with no women CEOs and the only people we’re going to say are qualified are CEOs, de facto you’re stuck in a Catch 22.” But if you go beyond the traditional thinking to include CFOs, partners in accounting and consulting firms among others, he says there are many qualified women. “If you think of supply more broadly, there is plenty of supply,” Odland says. “Start by broadening the definition of what experience would be additive. And then you just have to do it. This is important. Just do it.”
Having a wife and 3 daughters provides perspective, he says. “When you spend a lot of time with the other gender, you find out there are differences, but at the end of the day we’re all people and all the stereotypes go away.”
Asked how others can replicate what CED is doing, Odland is quick to say, “We’re not perfect. We have a long way to go. We’ve been a mostly male organization over time. We’ve had to evolve like everybody else.” But then he adds, “Sometimes people look at their situation and say we’ve got so far to go that it’s easier to stay where we are. Every journey begins with the first step. Just start. Find a woman for your board. Once you add one, then another, you find out this isn’t so scary. You have to say we just want to do this. It’s not rocket science.”