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Promotion vs. Reality: Are Companies All Talk and No Action Regarding Workplace Gender Equality?

Gender equality in the workplace and eliminating the gender pay gap are hot topics in the news, with some large brands capitalizing on the discussion to attract female consumers. Using flashy ads, social media campaigns, and press releases, companies say that they're committed to making meaningful cultural changes in their workplaces.

The problem, however, is that this is often all sizzle and no steak. A closer look behind the PR messaging reveals no concrete evidence of any progress at all in these organizations. In fact, many of these companies have done very little to promote gender equality in their ranks - or are simply ignoring the issue altogether.

Three companies have made bold statements on gender equality in 2017 - Audi, Google, and REI. Two out of the three do not measure up to their own hype, while one does seem to have made demonstrable progress.

Audi's Super Bowl Ad Made Claims It Couldn't Back Up

Audi started off the year with a Super Bowl ad promoting gender equality. The narrator asks whether he needs to tell his daughter that, despite hard work and talent, she will never be treated as an equal to men. The ad ends with both walking to an Audi car after she wins a soapbox car race against a boy, and the narrator saying maybe he can tell her something different. Text on the screen reads "Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work."

While the ad received initial praise, the adulation soon turned to scorn when it was revealed there are no women on Audi's management board and there are only two female members out of 14 on the company's U.S. executive team.

For its part, Audi says it signed the White House Equal Pay Pledge in 2016 and also has a policy that women have to make up 50 percent of its graduate analyst program participants. Yet, when placed against the bold claim of its Super Bowl ad, this seems like very minimal progress.

Google Says It's Closed the Pay Gap - While Under DOL Investigation for Discrimination

On Equal Pay Day, Google announced it was "proud to share" that the company has "closed the pay gap globally." Google also promoted a page on its re:Work website "sharing some of the lessons [it has] learned to help other businesses close the pay gap."

There is a problem with Google's claim, however. Soon after its announcement about closing the pay gap, details emerged that it is, in fact, under investigation by the Department of Labor for "systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce."

Google disputes this assessment, and some industry watchers have said it could be seen as merely differences between how the DOL and Google measure pay equity. "This is a data question," is how one put it.

If it is the DOL's job to measure pay equity, this begs the question as to why Google and other companies choose not to use the agency's methodology, which has been honed over many years. The very fact that Google made its pay equity claim knowing full well it was under DOL scrutiny is also troubling, to say the least.

REI: A Company That Seems to be Walking the Talk

In April, the outdoor retailer REI launched its "Force of Nature" campaign. Citing research showing 72 percent of women enjoy the outdoors but only 32 percent say they are "outdoorsy," REI has committed to making women a focus in 2017. The company says this is needed to counter the male-dominated focus for much of the marketing done by the outdoor industry.

As part of Force of Nature, "women will be front and center in REI storytelling for the rest of 2017." The company has also pledged to produce more female-specific gear, and will donate $1 million to nonprofits "that create opportunities for women in the outdoors." REI also partnered with Outside Magazine on an issue devoted entirely to women.

Unlike Audi and Google, REI's commitment to gender equality is evident in more than just its advertising. Its board of directors is one-third women and 44% of its corporate officers are female. While this falls short of parity with men, it does speak well of a company that has gotten its own house in order before making bold claims about gender equality.

The Danger of Announcing Progress Without Actually Making Progress

Why should we care that companies such as Audi and Google are publicly announcing commitments to gender equality while not making the grade themselves? Because it threatens to lull all of us, women included, into a false sense of security and potentially derail the progress on this issue that is still badly needed.

If, according to Google, women are now equal in the workplace, why would any executive, HR director, or manager pay attention to gender equality? Why, indeed, would anyone? The ads have spoken, companies have changed, so maybe let's move on?

The problem is, we can't move on because, for the most part, change has not happened. Companies such as REI are making progress, it's true. But for every REI there's an Audi saying it cares about equality to boost its reputation while its upper ranks are composed nearly entirely of men.

What Real Gender Equality Looks Like

In the face of misleading corporate ad campaigns, it is important that we are all clear on what real action on gender equality looks like at progressive companies. Among other things, this includes:

  • Equal representation of women at all levels in a company. There should not just be an equal balance of men and women in a company's entry-level positions. True gender equality extends right up through the ranks, into upper management and the board of directors.
  • Pay equity. Women should earn the same as men for performing the same work. Full stop.
  • No tokenism. The presence of women in a company should not just be for show. They should be in real positions of power with the same responsibilities and visibility as men.
  • Parental leave. In companies that are walking the talk on gender equality, women should not be paying a "motherhood penalty." Providing parental leave is also not enough. It is a start, but both men and women must be encouraged to take that leave. Otherwise women may still feel reluctant to take leave if men do not.
  • Mentorship and less visible opportunities. Employees rise only when guided and supported by those in positions of power. When men only choose to mentor other men cut out of their same cloth, and with whom they feel most comfortable, women and minorities are left behind.

Gender equality is too important an issue to ignore because a few companies claim to have addressed it. We must dig deeper on these claims, point out where they are falling short of reality, and demand accountability when companies discriminate against women.

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