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Alter: Accept Equality And Inclusion As The New Norm

Sarah Alter
Sarah Alter

by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Midwest

Sarah Alter took over as president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women (NEW) in June of last year. That was just before the August “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the #MeToo movement that went viral last October. The celebrity-led Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment was founded on Jan. 1 this year.

“All of these events and movements have fueled a greater focus, passion and commitment to our mission. Our group will call it that ‘perfect storm’ because our leaders and our partners are all the more energized to make sure that gender equality, diversity and inclusion are key strategic priorities in their companies,” Alter told The Shelby Report. “People are much more transparent about what had happened and more committed to addressing it.”

Alter said those recent events will not go quietly into history. They have generated what she calls a new norm. The way people think about work and how they speak and behave while at work is changing.

“This isn’t something that can be fixed by one training program or one very passionate article. This is about literally scrapping and rebuilding our cultures,” she said. “This is something that will now become a permanent aspect of everyone’s business culture.”

Alter has seen all kinds of statistics about the number of women who have experienced sexual harassment. Most find at least 90 percent have had that experience.

“When I first was given this opportunity to work for NEW, it clearly had a personal mission for me, having, sadly, experienced sexual harassment and having experienced cultures in companies where they devalued the role of women. They also devalued the role of multicultural leaders, and it just never sat well with me,” she said.

Being in a position that can help shape and guide leaders to create cultures and environments that value everyone equally is her dream job.

Four dynamics impact women’s turnover rates

NEW looked at labor migration data, hiring, promotion and retention/attrition levels for more than 400,000 employees and surveyed more than 3,600 men and women to find out why women are leaving retail and CPG companies at rates up to four times higher than men. NEW also conducted best-practice interviews with top-tier companies. The results were compiled into a report, “The Female Leadership Crisis: Why women are leaving (and what we can do about it).” NEW found that there are four key dynamics at play: isolation, bias, lack of support and work/life issues.

Isolation sets in when women look around their teams and at the attendees in meetings and they are the only woman there. Women bring different filters to the table, different experiences, attitudes and perceptions of work.

“Women need to feel that they belong and if they don’t feel they belong, it creates a sense of isolation,” Alter said. “That prompts them to seek a different opportunity where they can feel like there are more peers similar to themselves in their work environment.”

The second dynamic is bias and favoritism, or more specifically, an inherent “similar-to-me” bias. Women see this, but men often don’t. Alter said there is a lack of “21st-century perspective” around what defines a leader, which in the past has been white and male. The status quo puts women at a disadvantage.

NEW research reveals that as men rise to the executive level, they are less likely to believe there is favoritism in the workplace. Only 36 percent of the women surveyed agreed that there is minimal favoritism within their company.

“Having a culture where conscious inclusion is embedded in it each and every day, each and every week, each and every month in every single email and every single meeting—that’s the key to success,” Alter said.

The next dynamic is lack of support for women at work, especially as they are promoted, and the opportunity to advance to roles that prepare them for the next step up. Six out of 10 women said their supervisor entrusts them with a range of assignments to help prepare them for their next role; the remaining 40 percent are not receiving help in garnering the breadth of experience necessary to place them in contention for positions of higher responsibility and authority, according to NEW’s report.

Finally, work/life issues challenge women, who are still the world’s primary caretakers. Companies must better support women who desire guidance for personal and professional transitions, like welcoming a baby, going through a divorce, caring for an elderly parent, moving for a promotion or encountering a life-threatening illness.

“How does the company provide a culture or a support structure that will enable them to experience these pivots without necessarily having to derail their career?” Alter said. “We got feedback from a number of men and women who said they don’t feel that their companies are supporting them to the degree that they should be. They end up having to find a different company or opportunity that provides a culture that’s more supportive of them in these types of situations.”

Workplace flexiblity is key. Alter quoted former Campbell Soup Co. President and CEO Denise Morrison, who said, “It’s not about finding work-life balance but, rather, it’s about work-life integration.”

“As you rise in your career, particularly when you reach the executive ranks, it just so happens to be that your personal life gets exponentially crazier as you take on more responsibility and your family life potentially becomes more complicated,” Alter said. “What’s so key is that you need companies that provide flexibility and encourage people to embrace it so you see the CEO embracing a flexible work schedule himself or herself.”

She said that too often companies have stated policies that include flexibility, but employees are afraid to take advantage of them out of fear they will appear less committed to their job and future career.

A paradox in retail food

Why is it that women account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases but so few are in positions of influence in the retail and CPG industries?

“If you set the gender equality aside, it is Business 101 that to best serve your customer, you have to understand who your customer is—how they think, how they feel, what their preferences are,” Alter said. “It’s baffling to me that more companies haven’t realized this over time.”

NEW was founded 17 years ago by a handful of men and women leaders in the convenience industry. Their customers were diverse and most were women, and they recognized that their perspectives needed to be embedded in the leadership team that was driving the business models of their companies.

“NEW has always played a very strong role of advocacy. It is about advancing all women in the workplace because it is just good business,” Alter said. “There has been progress made from a hiring and a promotion perspective when you look at the entry-level to the very mid-level ranks of leaders in CPG and retail.”

Women now are being hired and promoted at roughly the same rate as men, she said. It falls apart at the executive level.

No more checking beliefs at the door

Alter said her generation was taught to leave emotions and opinions in the car. Evidence suggests that way of thinking is on its way out the door.

The newer generations—X, Y (Millennials) and Z—want to bring their true, authentic selves to work, Alter said. That desire is about being able to integrate their work into their lives and vice versa. They have been trained by social media to be vocal and share their true feelings. They want to be able to do that at work, and they want leaders to as well.

The way African-American, Hispanic and Asian female leaders see the world is shaped by unique and different perspectives and experiences.

“When they’re engaging in work and processing their experience at work, they bring very unique and different filters that they’re using, and they’re going to experience work in a very different way than, potentially, a white male may,” she said.

Alter used the events in Charlottesville as an example. A number of NEW partners reached out to the organization for help because their employees expected to be able to share their feelings at work about it. They also wanted to know the leadership’s stance.

Blueprint for action

Tim Ryan, chairman and senior partner of PwC, started a coalition in June of last year called CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion. The aim was to get every Fortune 1000 CEO to sign a pledge to begin recognizing, acknowledging and therefore minimizing unconscious bias. NEW signed on, and so did more than 500 leaders. They are seeking resources to help with the process.

“They’re going to partner together to identify how, in these powerful roles as CEOs, they can leverage that power to drive progress and change when it comes to gender equality and diversity and inclusion,” Alter said.

More importantly, the coalition has no business metrics. The time to measure the return on investment that gender equality and diversity bring has passed because “we all know it is there,” Alter said.

Ron Parker, former CEO of The Executive Leadership Council in Washington, D.C., said at the NEW Forum that there are enough stats out there and they speak for themselves.

“Now it’s more about leveraging the leadership that can help make an impact and then identifying the insights and the action plans,” Alter said. “That’s what NEW is all about. That’s what we’re going to stay focused on over the coming year.”

NEW is creating training programs based on the insights it has gathered. The organization will pilot a “blueprint for action,” a roadmap for NEW’s corporate partners to guide them as they seek to be more inclusive.

Alter said that companies that do not work toward inclusion and diversity “won’t be around. You’ll see the others who do embrace it and take action on this leaving them in the dust—from a business perspective,” Alter said.

Keep reading:

NEW And Accenture To Study Gender Equality In The Retail Workplace

Illuminators Hold Inaugural Diversity And Inclusion Event In SoCal

Multicultural Marketplace Column: Challenging Times Call For Bold Action

About the author


A 10-year employee of The Shelby Report who writes for and about food. In previous lives, she worked at a police department in Texas and an amusement park in Arkansas. She also was a newspaper publisher for more than a decade. Not sure which of those qualified her for this job.

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