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Inspirations on Diversity from Sports

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For quite some time now, I’ve grappled with the plight of gender disparity I was witnessing firsthand and through the grapevine. While a little over half the U.S. population is women, barely 20 percent of S&P 500 corporate executive teams and board members are females. Women deserve a fair chance at executive positions. So last year, I decided I was going to take a stand and devote my time towards this cause. Taking a page from the NFL playbook, Parity.org was modeled after the Rooney Rule.

Enacted in 2003, the Rooney Rule was named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who is a champion for equal representation. During a time when the NFL was seeing a lack of diversity in the league, especially in head coaching and senior management roles, the policy requires league teams to interview qualified minority candidates for these senior positions. And it’s been working. A recent Denver Post article cited, “Only six black head coaches were hired from the NFL’s inception in 1920 to 2003, when the Rooney Rule became active. In the 14 years since, 12 black head coaches have been hired.”

Our mission is just as simple as it is powerful: bring gender parity to the highest levels of business. Our ask is also equally as simple – have companies merely pledge to interview at least one qualified female candidate for every open executive seat, vice president and higher. That includes the C-Suite and the Board of Directors. There are no quotas or deadlines. Just do it. Since our launch in September, it’s been so energizing to have more than 200+ companies take the Parity Pledge, including tech giants like Adobe and Cisco, fashion and lifestyle brands like Ralph Lauren and Stance, and emerging tech companies like Lyft, Domo, Pluralsight, Qualtrics, and Vivint Home.

This week, everything came full circle. I had the opportunity to attend the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, to speak to an audience of 14,000 attendees on the importance of gender parity to business. Backstage, I had the opportunity to chat with Steve Young, former NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, NFL analyst and now investor. He was to speak onstage soon after me. We discussed his thoughts on the Rooney Rule, and his perspective as a businessperson on the challenges in bringing gender parity to the executive level of organizations:

It’s been 15 years since the Rooney Rule was enacted. Even without quotas to the rule, how important was it in bringing diversity to the NFL?

Steve Young: [There’s] no question the Rooney Rule was the spark. People respond to calls to action; they want to broaden their horizons and embrace new ways of thinking. The Rooney Rule opened up opportunity for minorities—suddenly they were going to have a chance to interview. When they knew they were going to be interviewed, they became well prepared and as a result, many were hired. It still needs to be in place today—but we hope over time, it will be needed less and less. The goal should be to make it completely unnecessary.

Many studies show that a diverse executive team and Board are good for the bottom line. As an investor and businessperson do you see the impact of this in your portfolio companies or elsewhere?

SY: I certainly do. You don’t want homogenous boards or executive teams, where everyone thinks alike. If everyone has the same “DNA,” there’s no room for different ideas or creative thinking—not when everyone thinks alike. Of course, this asks more from leadership—it’s a challenge to be collaborative with people who are different than you. It’s easy to hire people who are just like you. It’s another thing to hire people that are diverse. You have to go out and find them; then open your mind to the value they bring to your company.

What hurdles do you see in bringing gender parity to the top of companies?

SY: Sometimes people need to be jolted into changing. Parity.org does that. When a company makes a public commitment to taking [the ParityPledge], they behave differently. If there’s no call to action, companies will just keep doing what they’re doing. You have to jolt them out of their comfort zone. It’s good to shake up the way things have always been done.

While we’ve seen a great deal of progress in the few months since we’ve launched, we’re only at the beginning of our journey for gender parity in the workplace. Much like Steve Young’s vision for the Rooney Rule, we look forward to the day when we won’t need to exist – where the corporate playing field is level and all qualified women are considered and given equal opportunity to interview and be hired for executive positions.

By Cathrin Stickney, founder of Parity.org

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