Why Heroes Matter

I was on a panel a few weeks back and an astute student in the audience asked each panelist to share a book she had read recently with the audience. An all-female panel at an all-women’s college—the inspiration, energy, and enthusiasm in the room were all high. One panelist confessed that she had recently picked up a book “because she had never read a book with a female Asian protagonist before and she wanted to know what it felt like.”

My heart sank.

She’s not alone.

In 2016, women made up less than one-third of the protagonists in top movies. 28% of speaking roles in Hollywood belong to people of color. 10% of children’s books feature people of color. And only 31% of books feature women as central characters.

What does any of that have to do with the world of business?

When I do workshops with people on gender equality, I often start by asking participants to write down entrepreneurs or CEOs they admire. I’ve never run a session in which Steve Jobs, Sergei Brin, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet were not mentioned.

Typically at some point in the middle of the session, panic sets in because after initially jotting down every entrepreneur that comes to mind, people (both men and women, by the way) realize they are sitting in a gender equality session and start racking their brains for “that woman from eBay” (that would be Meg Whitman), “the CEO of GM” (that would be Mary Barra), or “oh I know, the lady who leads IBM (that would be Ginni Rometty).

When pencils go down, most people have 1–2 women on their lists and dozens of men. This is no accident.

You see, we are all defined by the stories that shape us, and in the world of business and tech, even the stories have their own language. Business is run by “titans,” we all love a good “David versus Goliath” company rivalry, and the heroes of these stories are, more often than not straight, white men.

Harvard Business School, the creator of many of the world’s best business stories in the form of cases, examined the narratives the school produced and found that just 10% of HBS cases had female protagonists.

But what’s even more depressing than the current status of business narratives is complacency—almost half of men and one third of women believe that women are well-represented in leadership when just one in ten senior leaders is female.

For the story of female leadership in business to have a different ending, we need a more diverse set of heroes. Even if your company’s board or executive leadership is not as gender diverse as you would like it to be, you can take a hard look at the stories you tell in your organization and to your customers and make the heroes of the stories you share significantly more diverse.

It may seem like a small step in the grand scheme of things, but as my colleague so bravely shared above—it matters, both to the current generation of leaders and those that will come after them. Below, in celebration of International Women’s Day, are three ways anyone, anywhere, can #pressforprogress with the stories you share and the heroes you highlight.

1. Take a hard look at your marketing materials.
Last year, Refinery29 and Getty Images partnered to create stock imagery that showed more diverse female representation, a commitment to making their brand more reflective and inclusive of what women actually look like in real life versus perpetuating stereotypes.

But whether you’re a massive consumer brand or have a small business blog, you’re creating heroes in your own marketing efforts, whether you know it or not.

What if you made the “sales rep” in your image a woman of color?

What if you illustrated a female CEO instead of a traditionally male one?

What if the default setting for an engineer icon was a woman?

These may sound like small questions, but they can have a meaningful impact in how your customers experience and promote your brand.

2. Diversify who you learn from.
If your company’s leadership isn’t as diverse as you might like, consider who your organization admires and learns from on a regular basis. Two years ago, we took a hard look at learning opportunities in our organization. These include:

  • Panel discussions internally
  • HubTalks (lectures from external leaders on business and growth topics)
  • Customer stories shared in our company meetings
  • Books we discuss as part of Book Club

And we began to make a concerted attempt to hear from a more diverse group of voices. The very act of asking ourselves to source more gender diverse talent helped us land remarkable speakers and have far more dynamic conversations around leadership and business.

3. Create space and time for promotion.
Many women are quick to highlight the accomplishments of others, but rarely brag about themselves, so if you’re looking for a surefire way to diminish Imposter Syndrome and promote confidence in women at your workplace, create opportunities for women to encourage and promote each other.

At HubSpot, we’ve:

  • Hosted LinkedIn recommendation nights
  • Made a dent in the fact that just 17% of Wikipedia entries are about women with a Wiki Hack Night
  • Highlighted an amazing woman each week in our company newsletter
  • Named many of our conference rooms globally after women we admire, including Malala, Grace Hopper, and of course, the Queen herself—Beyonce Knowles

Creating opportunities for men and women to nominate women they admire for visible positions and highlighting female leaders you admire creates intentional spaces and time to make a dent in the confidence and aspiration gap so deeply rooted in the modern workplace.

One of my favorite lines in the musical Hamilton is “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” It’s a simple but powerful reminder that the stories we tell have a profound impact on the reality that you create. We all grew up on fairy tales, so we are conditioned to use stories as a means to convey what matters.

The more we thoughtfully consider the heroes we promote, admire, and highlight, the more likely we are to pave the path toward a more inclusive future.


Read more from Katie.

Original post on ThinkGrowth.

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