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Path to Women’s Equity: Action, Goals, and Support Are Key According to Experts at MAKERS 2024 Conference

Insights from Industry Leaders Highlight Challenges and Strategies for Advancing Women's Equality & Pay in the Workplace

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, you may be wondering about the landscape of women’s equity. Where are we with pay parity and closing the gender gap? A handful of groundbreaking trailblazers headlined the MAKERS 2024 Conference with some key takeaways: take action, set goals, and be someone others look up to.

Room for Improvement

A status check on equity in the workplace can’t happen until we look at the numbers. In the Women in the Workplace 2023 report—the largest study of women in corporate America and Canada—research shows how women’s representation in the C-suite (a term used to describe an organization's senior executives) is at the highest it has ever been (28% compared to 17% in 2015), while progress is lagging in the middle of the pipeline, in entry-level and manager positions. Data shows a constant underrepresentation of women and women of color. True equality in the workplace, the research shows, is not where it should be.

Joanna Barsh, best-selling author and director emerita at McKinsey & Company (the group that published the report), brought her enthusiasm to the conference to illuminate the strides women have made in the workplace, while noting the challenges that lay ahead.

“If you’re tired, and if you’re overwhelmed, and if, like me, you shed an angry tear, when you read this or see the movie for the fifth time (referencing iconic speech by America Ferrara in the film, “Barbie”) that is because it isn’t fair. It is overwhelming,” she said.

What’s critical, Barsh continued, is shifting from a place of “it sucks” to “I have agency. I have some control. I can act. I can learn. I can grow.”

Taking control, she said, also means working towards something meaningful.

“What do you want?’ she asked the audience. “What is really motivating you to do that? What makes you so excited and so stressed and so ready to get out of bed in the morning?”

She stressed how important it is to have a plan, with actionable steps to achieve what you’ve set out to do.

“You need to just stop thinking about it and start doing it. And it takes learning. And it takes some failure. And then guess what you get to do? Practice!”

Drumming Up Support

Once you have a plan in place, it helps to be surrounded by folks who can help. When it comes to creating connections at work—ones that will lead to a more equitable workplace—music executive Ty Stiklorius and Stacy L. Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AII) (a global think tank studying issues of inequality in entertainment) say female artists, songwriters, and executives need to feel valued from day one.

“There’s a lot of shutting down rather than saying, “let me open up the checkbook and make sure you’re paid equally to your white male counterpart for the talent that you have,” said Smith.

Smith emphasized that inclusion doesn’t just happen organically—you have to be intentional.

“Our work shows, really clearly, that if women go into the recording studio, they’re not only going to be sexualized, they’re not only going to be objectified, it may not only be a place that’s not safe for them, but that their work is undermined,” she explained.

Smith used an example from USC’s research to illustrate one way to fix under-representation in songwriting:

“We’ve found that there’s twenty five songs where you have a female artist but you don’t have a female songwriter in those rooms,” she said. “Do you know what would happen if you simply added two female songwriters, right? To those twenty five songs? We could potentially be at parity for the first time ever on the music charts in like six or seven years. First time ever.”

Simple solutions to are key: be flexible, be nimble, and notice who may need a little more encouragement to speak up:

“Seeking out those people that traditionally aren’t in places in power. Our job is to see that talent and bring them into those rooms safely,” she said.

Being empowered is also about energy, according to Barsh: “Be engaged,” she enthused. “Be present. Bring some goddam energy to work! Bring it to work even if you have to dance and sing. That’s a wonderful thing.”

Allies and Advocacy

A deep dive into the evolution of women’s parts in movies and TV shows how progress is being made. An influx of niche shows in the last decade has given rise to the portrayal of all different types of women—a welcome change from years past.

“One of the biggest problems in writing for women has been either that they have been either horrible dragon ladies or saints. And all of a sudden there’s every kind of person,” said actor J. Smith Cameron, adding “like there are in the world.”

According to actor Karen Pittman, the shift to creating more diverse characters can be attributed to monumental events such as the global protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

“In many ways the evolution of how these characters of color have come to life in the last few years have to do with a lot of cultural reckoning about how we see people of color” she explained. “And the desire and the need for us to reflect back as we make demands as audiences and as people in this community.”

It’s also critical, Pittman believes, for there to be an ongoing, open dialogue about what advocacy looks like. And how important it is to be an encouraging, supportive force in women’s lives.

“I will tell you that communities like this, rooms like this, and the support I get from women is so significant. it really is about building a community of women.”

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Lindsay Martell is a freelance writer living just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. She writes about everything from adult ballet to thyroid health for such publications as Dance, Pointe, HealthCentral, and Next Avenue.