How To Leverage The Power Of The Pack To Create Gender Equality
Forbes, Amy Blankson
March 1, 2018
This January, I made my inaugural trip to the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas to interview women for my series on Women Execs in Tech. Although I knew crowds in excess of 180,000 were expected, I was completely unprepared for the logistics of navigating multiple miles of expo on foot in the pouring rain. Cold, wet, and tired, I walk into my next interview at a place called The Girls’ Lounge–a pop-up suite with comfy couches and two-story windows overlooking the Strip. I felt like I had found a reservoir in the middle of the desert!
A moment later, Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient and visionary of The Girls’ Lounge, emerges and gives me a warm hug. A whirlwind of energy, Shelley launches into the schedule of events for the next few days– featuring a line-up of female tech executives as well as high-profile women leaders like WNBA Superstar Tamika Catchings and singer-songwriter Jewel. The intimate gathering space literally buzzes with the excitement about the coming days of events. For an organization that is barely four years old, The Female Quotient has made impressive strides in garnering support and leadership for a movement to bring greater gender equality to the workplace.
Shelley explains to me that she fell into this line of work quite by accident. In 2000, she left Nielsen to found OTX (the Online Testing Exchange), which soon became one of the largest and fastest growing research companies in the world. Just ten years later, Shelley sold OTX to Ipsos for $80 million, and continued on her work there as the leader of Global Innovation. As the first female chief executive ranked in the research industry’s top 25, Shelley was a trailblazer who brought an intense sense of passion and purpose to her work (she jokes that she was the Chief Troublemaker).
Despite her incredible track record, Shelley recalls a “heartbeat moment” when she received some harsh criticism from a boss early in her career for trying too hard, staying too late, and being too responsive to clients. And of a later incident when Shelley got emotional defending her employees when her company was being restructured and was told that, “there was simply no room for emotion in the boardroom.”
60% of women believe that stereotypes personally impact their career, their life, or both.
Fortunately, Shelley had the presence of mind and fortitude to realize that this response was shortsighted. She knew that emotion was just a sign of passion, purpose, and caring—and these were the very qualities that had made her so successful with her clients! Rather, she knew she needed to find her own voice and do things her own way.
Shelley smiles mischievously as she recalls one of her favorite Katharine Hepburn quotes, “If you obey all of the rules, you miss all of the fun.” She explains how this quote inspired her leadership style, focusing on rewriting corporate rules that made no sense. She asks:
- Why should leaders distance themselves from their co-workers (especially when they often spend more time at work than at home)? At OTX, Shelley took the time on her holiday break to call each one of her 250 employees to wish them a happy holiday and to check in. It is no accident that she boasted a 99% retention rate for her employees.
- Why can’t there be a greater allowance for life-work balance? At The Female Quotient, Shelley gives employees unlimited vacation days so they can take the time they need to attend to the other responsibilities in their lives or pause to recharge.
- Why can’t team members attend certain meetings just because of their title? Shelley believes leaders are made at every level and works hard to de-emphasize formal leadership hierarchy when unnecessary.
Time and again, Shelley tapped into her experiences as a woman and her emotions to bring a fresh approach to the field—a strategy that has helped Shelley to stand out as a leader. For instance, when Shelley was first invited to attend the male-dominated Consumer Electronics Show in 2013, she felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the conference (a response I can now attest to myself). So Shelley invited some girlfriends to walk the massive expo floor together and told them to invite their friends. To her surprise, 50 women showed up to walk together through the exhibits and suddenly, heads were turning left and right. Where did all these women come from, people wondered? “It was a confidence moment,” she said as she witnessed the power of the pack. “And confidence is beautiful when the minority becomes their own majority.”
After this experience, Shelley organized the first-ever “Girls’ Lounge” to talk about the experience. That moment turned into a full-blown movement, with 5,000 women attending The Girls’ Lounge events at conferences that are traditionally male-dominated. Building on the success of this movement, Shelley decided to leave Ipsos to found The Female Quotient, an organization whose mission is to advance gender equality in the workplace by offering research and strategy solutions for forward-thinking corporations to give companies and leaders the tools they need to design the culture they want.
Today the Female Quotient leverages two pillars to create actionable change:
- The Girls’ Lounge – provides a series of pop-up experiences at conferences across the globe, such as The World Economic Forum, Cannes Lions and the Consumer Electronics Show, where women can connect, network, and learn from each other.
- The Equality Practice – provides forward-thinking companies with an actionable toolkit (called the Modern Guide to Equality) to accelerate change in the workplace
Shelley’s work couldn’t come at a more perfect time, with the recent focus on sexual harassment in the workplace rising to a fever pitch. Yet, Shelley is careful to say that the focus of The Female Quotient is on lifting up positive examples of best practices, as well as highlighting men who have been champions of gender equality.
She believes it will take men and women working side-by-side to create large-scale systems change. In fact, researchers estimate that, at our current pace, it will take 217 years to close the gender pay gap. Clearly they haven’t met Shelley Zalis yet.