Balance of the genders, not war of the sexes!

Why International Women’s Day should matter to all of us.

It’s the beginning of March and, once again, we’re seeing lots of those stories in the media. You know the ones.

Stories about women being paid less for doing the same work as men. Stories about women trying to balance two jobs: being a mother and an employee. And, of course, stories of companies where there isn’t even one female in a leadership position, let alone on the board.

Yes, it’s the time of year when we celebrate International Women’s Day.  And with that comes a lot of heated discussion about why we need a special day to celebrate women. And why isn’t there a special day to celebrate men?  And what do days like these really achieve? 

Each year, we read the same type of articles and listen to the same discussions. This year, I wanted to take a step back and hit the pause button. Mute the whole thing – and just reflect a little on how I see things. I have a pretty straightforward view.

I believe business and society are better off when we get the gender balance right.

It’s not about men versus women, caught up in some endless battle where there can only be one winner. I’ve never seen it that way. 

Nevertheless, International Women’s Day is one of my favourite days in the year.

March 8th focuses our attention on where we stand in achieving gender balance. It gives us a chance to pause and reflect on the women who’ve gone before us, as well as the generation picking up the baton.

It’s a chance to honour our mothers, daughters, sisters, friends and colleagues – the many special women who bring such value to how we live and work; who enrich our everyday exchanges with those powerful but feminine qualities of care, empathy, mutual support, multi-tasking and many others that harmoniously complement the male ones.

I would also like to share some of my personal reflections on the subject.

One step forward, two steps back

I recently read the World Economic Forum 2020 Global Gender Gap Report and was shocked to read that despite all our efforts, we won’t reach gender parity for another 99.5 years and economic parity for 257 years! That’s truly mindboggling. 

And it gets worse. The numbers show there’s even a regression in gender economic equality. While more women than ever are in senior roles globally, their overall participation in the elite C- suite is stalling, and the pay gap is widening.

This is incomprehensible to me. Wherever I go on business I see women juggling multiple roles at home and in the community and also as full or part-time employees, business owners and entrepreneurs. I admire their strength as they struggle to address unconscious bias. The sort of bias that has taken millennia to develop and is hard to break down overnight. 

You know the sort of thing.  Where a man might be seen as focused and persistent, the exact same approach by a woman will often be described as pushy and abrasive.  And a man who feels strongly about something will be praised for his passion. But a woman might be viewed as emotional or dramatic. 

I value men and the great behaviours and traits they bring to the table. But I also know that gender equality is not just the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense.

Quoting from the recent WEF gender equality report: “Developing, empowering and deploying half of the world’s available talent is key to how we grow and compete.  And that can’t happen and won’t happen until we get the gender balance right”.

From the inside out

When I started my career at Coca-Cola – as a junior marketer in Zagreb – I aspired to make a difference in the world.

This included doing what I could to help realise female potential. Today as a single mother, a senior leader at my company and a proud chairperson of its Global Women’s Leadership Council, I can humbly say I contribute to that. And I do so by supporting the professional development of women inside and outside our company.

Part of my role as chair of the Global Women’s Leadership Council is advising our Chairman and CEO James Quincey, and his executive leadership team, on ways to speed up the development and movement of female talent into roles of increasing responsibility and influence.  And making sure the company is 50% led by women.  There is still a long way to go, but we we’re getting there.

Recognising the important role women play in communities, business and purchase decisions has in fact been central to The Coca-Cola Company since its earliest days. Did you know, for example, that we were the first publicly traded company to have a female board member, Lettie Pate Evans, in 1934?

Today, a third of our board are women, with five female directors.  Some 47.7 percent of our global workforce are women and I’m proud that the Central & Eastern Europe Business Unit, that I am honoured to lead, already has a gender-balanced leadership team.

Empowering women with 5by20

Looking outwards is far more important. I am particularly proud of the achievements from our global 5by20 initiative, which aims to economically empower five million women by the end of 2020. We are well on our way to that goal, with over 4.6 million women empowered by the end of 2019.

From mango farmers and small shop-owners in Africa and South East Asia, to entrepreneurs in Poland, Spain, Ukraine, and Denmark, we’re humbled to know that we’re helping economically inactive women feel confident about their financial futures.

Our programs in Europe - that I closely follow - are diverse and tailored to local needs. Their focus goes beyond offering business skills. They build self-esteem by promoting role models, overcoming stereotypes and providing mentoring. And it’s worth noting that many of our leaders, men and women, including myself, offer their time and expertise as mentors and mobilize their peer networks. Because when we join forces, we can do miracles.

In Europe, our biggest 5by20 endeavour is a program called ‘’Success is Me’’ in Poland.

Starting back in 2016, it has already empowered over 400,000 women, giving them the skills and the confidence to improve their employability and act as role models to their peers.

Small actions, every day

Closing the gender gap might seem overwhelming, but I believe that every leader – male and female – can make a difference through small but tangible and meaningful actions every day.

So, let’s use International Women’s Day to refocus our energies on how we can make women’s lives and prospects better.

It provides an opportunity for all of us to actively choose to challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, acknowledge needs, improve situations and celebrate and thank all the women that give their best self, every day.

All the best,

Lana Popovic