About a year ago, Iris Kuo, a journalist, was reading an interview with Sally Krawcheck, a former finance executive who is now chair of the women’s network Ellevate. Buried in her answer to seventh question, Krawcheck said, “I’ve had numerous groups of women say to me they would stop buying from a company if they understood what their gender makeup was.”
It was the spark for Kuo. “That just really lit me up,” she said. “I was like, Well I’m a journalist, I can do that. I can show people what the gender makeup of a company is. This is totally doable.”
And women like her are proving it is doable. Earlier this month, she and her cofounder Camille Ricketts won a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation to turn their project LedBetter, a database of information on companies’ gender diversity, into a web app to help drive consumers’ decisions. And next month, Amy Cross will formally launch her own app, the Buy Up Index, with at a similar goal. Both projects have the same aim: use data to inform consumers and, hopefully, change their buying habits to in turn change corporate behavior.
“I fully hope that transparency can change the ratio for American women in companies,” Cross said. Just 4.6 percent of S&P; 500 companies have a female CEO, while women make up just 25 percent of executive and senior officers and less than 20 percent of board members. These numbers persist despite a huge body of research that shows companies with more diverse leadership outperform those that remain mostly male.
Cross’ project will be a mobile app that ranks companies and brands on a variety of metrics relating to women’s equality: how many women are in leadership, what kinds of family-friendly benefits are offered to employees, whether companies are involved in philanthropy aimed at women, and whether their ads are full of gender stereotypes. While some of the information is public, it can be hard to come by. “It’s very hard to wrestle the facts out of companies,” she said. “That’s why I think we’re seeing this whole move toward transparency.”
She is partly inspired by the Human Rights Campaign Buyer’s Guide, which publicly ranks companies on workplace equality for LGBT people. It’s gone from about a dozen companies that ranked well when it launched to hundreds. “That’s a massive amount of change,” Cross noted. “I hope we can do the same and call attention to…the companies that are doing it right.”
“My hope is that hundreds of thousands of women download it and use it, and hopefully companies that do well see they get a bump in sales and companies that don’t do well are motivated to improve their score,” she explained. “Women are in control of much more money, but money isn’t being used as a level of any sort of change.”
Kuo and her team are similarly focused on women’s consumer spending as a tool for change. She and Ricketts have been creating a database that will eventually allow a user to look up a brand or company and see the gender of the CEO, the gender makeup of the executive team, and the gender makeup of the board. “We’re trying to put power back into the hands of the people,” Kuo said. “So often there are statistics, but what can you really do about it. …The way you can [change them] is by voting with your wallet.”
While all the information her project uses is public, it would require each consumer interested in this kind of information to look at hundreds of separate corporate websites, rather than come to one central place. The web app is set to launch in a year.
“Ideally, LedBetter will be used by consumers to help drive their buying decisions toward women-friendly companies,” she said. That would, hopefully, impact corporate behavior. “We would hope that companies would take notice and keep diversity more in mind as they hire and promote.” If it’s successful, the two have plans to expand it to look at racial diversity as well as diversity in governments to help inform voters.
“We believe that people would change their behavior if they just had this data,” she said. “We believe that the world would be better if data were more available.”
The apps are part of a trend toward using transparency in the hope of improving gender equality. Earlier this year, three websites launched to collect anonymous submissions and gather information about how companies treat their female employees in the hopes of both empowering women looking for jobs as well as changing what these companies decide to offer. And companies can also now become EDGE certified, which focuses on the treatment of female employees. If they get certified, they can put a seal on their products to signal it to consumers.