Now’s the time when, under normal circumstances, we’d be composing a commencement address for the Class of 2021. But these aren’t normal times—so, instead, we’re thinking of something more along the lines of a far-after-commencement speech for the women who graduated 20 years ago.
This is for the women who have already put in the long hours and hard work to establish their careers and who have witnessed—or personally experienced—how this past year has disproportionately impacted women in the workforce.
Why address the mid-career tier versus those just starting out? The critical need to close the gender gap and ensure equitable opportunity and treatment is not limited to any one career stage. Nor can we ensure progress without the active participation of women at all stages of their careers. It is imperative that both mid-level and senior leaders help to build environments in which more women can thrive.
Unfortunately, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse, extending the projected end of the global gender wage gap by an entire generation—from 99.5 years to 135.6 years—according to the Gender Gap Report 2021 from the World Economic Forum.
Equally concerning is the leaky pipeline of up-and-coming female talent. The global 2020 Women in Management report from Catalyst shows that women are falling behind early in their careers, reducing their chances of reaching top levels of management. Mid-career experiences and obstacles—personal or professional—are hindering growth.
As senior executives, we have a unique ability, and duty, to help subsequent generations find their power, activate it, and have the confidence to soar to the boardroom. This responsibility extends not just to the Class of 2021 but to all those still struggling to make it.
Just as we learned from and leaned on the generation before us, we must support those coming up now. As we ascend the career ladder, we need to ensure the rungs are steady and available for the women trying to follow behind us.
Here are three things we, as leaders in our respective fields, are committed to doing to help recent graduates and others coming up through the ranks to grow and develop into future leaders. We invite—and encourage—members of the Class of 2001 and other mid-career professionals to join us.
Take a risk on someone else.
We recognize the benefits of taking smart risks on ourselves—but what about the benefits of taking risks on others? Find a young woman, or several young women, to champion. Ideally, these will be women with diverse backgrounds and points of view, meaning that the relationship broadens perspectives on both sides of the table.
Not long ago, Marian assigned her interns to present themselves to members of senior management. The exercise gave the interns a chance to promote themselves in a polished way and put themselves in front of people who could advance their careers. Just as critically, it offered senior leaders the benefit of hearing from and interacting with a diverse set of young voices. Likewise, throughout her career, Suzanne has introduced junior women to her companies’ boards and senior management, showcasing their expertise and work.
Forget about mentoring—instead, become a sponsor.
For many years now, we have been vocal about our shared opinion of mentoring (not fans). Sponsorship is, in our view, a more muscular process—mentoring on steroids. It’s a more proactive way to nurture promising talent and advocate for them to get meatier assignments, more challenging responsibilities, and promotions. It also means creating opportunities, perhaps through speaking engagements, writing sabbaticals, or international assignments. Rather than mentors, we consider ourselves serial sponsors of talented individuals.
Be driven by the bigger picture.
From being part of the launch team behind #GivingTuesday to working to unsmoke the world in our current roles at Philip Morris International, purpose has been a continuous inspiration and driver for us. Help others find their purpose and passion, something that matters to them and to the broader world. Sure, there are many among this younger generation for whom purpose is clear; but for those who aren’t Greta Thunberg and haven’t yet identified their cause, aim to point them in a direction that will be meaningful to them—an area in which they can genuinely contribute. And give them the guidance and space necessary to engage in that work.
We are not blind to the roadblocks and obstacles that litter the paths of women striving to make their way through professional life. Still, we are optimists. We have seen the enormous progress made by women in our lifetimes. And though the pace of change can seem glacial, we see a future that will yield fundamental advances for women, even with the setbacks created by the pandemic.
Our optimism is born of the faith we have in women everywhere to help lift up young talent. We will continue to find our power—and use it to ensure a better world for all of us. Only by achieving gender equity and allowing all people to contribute to their full potential will we have businesses strong enough to lift economies, communities strong enough to force progress, and a workforce capable of delivering on the full promise of this century.
How would you help pull up the class of 2021? We’d love to know your thoughts – email us here at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Class of 2021” as your subject line.