Q&A with Serena Fong

| October 12, 2015 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

This summer I was on a panel about gender pay equity at a conference held by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  I talked about the range of ways that my clients have suffered discrimination in compensation, and Serena Fong, Vice President, Government Affairs for Catalyst, gave great insights on what companies can do to achieve pay equity.

Catalyst is a nonprofit organization with operations in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia, and Japan focused on expanding opportunities for women. Catalyst provides research, information, and advice about women and work, as well as solutions for achieving gender equity in position and pay.  My firm has used Catalyst’s research on women in the accounting industry, for example, in our lawsuit challenging gender discrimination at Big Four Accounting Firm KPMG.

KateWhat key initiatives are you focused on now?

SerenaCatalyst has a couple of key initiatives we’re focused on now.  First, we’re helping workplaces be more inclusive.  If companies really want to gain the benefits that come with having a diverse workforce, then everyone needs to feel like they can bring their whole selves and their true selves to the workplace.

KateWhat are you doing to achieve this?

SerenaWe’ve developed online training courses on inclusive leadership, which teach participants what inclusive workplaces look like and how they can manage their staff and their own career in a way that maximizes inclusive workplaces.  The courses are free and have been very popular.  We had about 40,000 people register when we first launched the course, and we relaunched again in July and had 18,000 people sign up—indicating there’s a real need for inclusiveness training. Inclusive leadership is also not just for or about women; 60% of those who signed up were men!

KateWho is the target audience for these training courses?

SerenaThe targeted audience member is a mid-level manager, but they can also be helpful to people who are just starting out in their careers. It’s about what individuals at all levels of a company can do—we can help everyone build a plan to become more inclusive.

We’ve educated our members–primarily Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies—about the trainings, and they then push it to their employees, which helps us reach employees across the organizations.

KateWhat is your second key initiative?

SerenaWe’re focusing on women of color in the workplace.  Representation of women of color is so low, and it has stayed at low levels for several years.  From a business perspective—and we do try to build a business case for organizations and companies to achieve greater diversity—companies are shutting out a large part of the talent pool by excluding women of color.  We look at this issue—why it is so low and what companies can do about it.

KateWhat have you learned about what companies can do about the low representation of women of color in business?

SerenaWe’ve talked with a lot of women of color and companies to identify the organizational and institutional barriers that are stopping women of color from advancing.  In March we hosted a summit where we brought academics, representatives from the private sector, and policymakers together to discuss practices within organizations that can break down barriers and policies that can help drive change.

What we’ve learned is that there is no easy fix because it all goes back to unconscious and subconscious biases.  It is no longer the case that we have a lot of companies explicitly refusing to advance women or women of color.  We now see women being denied opportunities and assignments subtly, as a result of gendered assumptions.

KateFor example?

SerenaFor example, it is common in the corporate world for employees to use an overseas assignment as an opportunity to advance in their organization.  If a manager has two employees eligible for an overseas assignment—one man and one woman—the manager may not give the opportunity to the woman because of an assumption that she would not want to move her family.  The manager is more likely to give the opportunity to the man, even if he would also have to move his family, based on the assumption that it would be easier for him.  The manager may think he is being nice to the woman by not putting her in the situation where she would have to move, but the decision has a negative effect on the woman’s career.

KateBlogger’s Note: Professor Schoenbaum explained in an earlier post that these assumptions may even cause a manager not to groom female employees for advancement in the first place, and this is a problem I have seen many of my clients face.  Female employees at Merck, for example, have explained that their manager justified giving men better advancement opportunities in part because they were “breadwinners” who “provide for their families.”

As the Vice President, Government Affairs, can you talk about government initiatives you are monitoring?

SerenaWe look at any issue that affects women in the workplace.  Issues in this area that have been heating up lately include equal pay, work scheduling, paid leave, and women on corporate boards.

One thing I find interesting is that in the United States, a lot of government actions are happening at the local and state levels—not the federal level—in large part because of gridlock within Washington preventing things from happening.  California, for example, recently passed an equal pay measure that requires equal pay for substantially similar work and that prohibits retaliation against employees for talking about compensation.  A lot of local governments are also increasing the minimum wage.

KateBlogger’s Note:  Regular readers of this blog are familiar with this concept—Professor Schoenbaum and Julie Vogtman both talked about how local governments are passing laws to protect working women in the absence of federal legislation.

I’ve conducted another interview for the blog in which we discussed work scheduling issues.  In particular, we talked about The New York Times report on how the unpredictable hours of Starbucks employees can make it incredibly difficult to coordinate child care, take classes, or have another job if necessary.  Are those the type of workplace scheduling issues you’re talking about?

SerenaExactly.  There are a few state-level executive orders proposed that would deal with this issue.  And recently The Gap announced that it would also ban last-minute scheduling changes so that employees can plan around their work schedules.

KateWhat are the government initiatives involving paid leave?

SerenaThe United States is the only industrialized nation that does not have paid leave.  It is disgraceful.  Several states are taking a look at this issue and putting it on their ballots.

KateCan you talk about the issue of having women on corporate boards?

SerenaAgain, this is happing more at the local and state levels. The Massachusetts Senate, for example, passed a resolution in July encouraging equitable and diverse gender representation on corporate boards.  Illinois passed a similar resolution in May, and California was the first state to address this by passing a resolution in 2013.

KateCan you explain what these laws require?

SerenaThe laws do not establish quotas or require anything.  The state governments are simply urging companies to put more women on corporate boards.

KateHow do these laws compare with laws in other industrialized nations?

SerenaFrankly, the rest of the industrialized world is further ahead on this issue. Other countries have held discussions and proposed, as well as implemented, various solutions.  We are not—we are just starting the conversations about women on corporate boards now.  As a result, the United States is falling behind.  If we want to be economically competitive on a global scale, we’re going to need to start looking at this issue.

KateHow is it that having more women on corporate boards would cause us to be more competitive?

SerenaThere is a lot of research showing the benefits of increasing the number of women on corporate boards, including increased productivity, innovation, better ideas.  There are a whole host of benefits to having more diversity in senior leadership.

KateWhat other global trends are you seeing in the areas of gender equity?

SerenaOne thing that is refreshing to us is that equal pay is getting a lot of attention.  The UK, for example, just announced a requirement for companies to be transparent about their wages.  As we talked about in our panel discussion, increased transparency is one way shown to close the pay gap.  And the direction the UK is going indicates governments are interested in taking action on equal pay.

We’re also seeing movement on paid leave on a global basis.  Countries in Europe are well ahead of us in this regard, and European countries are now looking at paternity leave – at changing the conversation from one about maternity leave to one about parental leave.

KateHow would this help women?

SerenaIt all goes back to creating a culture change within organizations and communities.  Encouraging parental leave for everyone acknowledges that it is not just a benefit for one gender, but a benefit for all.

KateAre you optimistic that things will get better for women in the workplace?

SerenaI think this is all very encouraging, but I recognize that change is not easy and that it will take a long time.  I am a realistic optimist.  We’re trying to change the culture and shift mindsets, norms and perspectives.  We’re taking steps in the right direction, and gender diversity has benefits for everyone—in all aspects of life.