Last week, while I trotted up and down the Croisette for Cannes Lions, I saw a news article that made me question whether I’d enjoyed too much rosé, or was experiencing heat stroke, or both: Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg agree to hold cage fight.

Cue lots of pieces on why we need more women at the top of businesses, who admittedly would be much less likely to engage in such a self-indulgent, populist enterprise. Whilst this is undeniably true - only nine of the 97 FTSE 100 CEOs are women - for me, it’s not the only place where our focus as female leaders should lie. This has been brought to life for me by reading Koa Beck’s seminal ‘White Feminism’, which I think every feminist should read. 

The truth is, most conversations about women in leadership focus on white, heterosexual, neurotypical, cis-gendered women who more often than not come from a middle-class background. There are many diverse female and non-binary leaders who do not fit this mould, but often when pundits talk about ‘female leadership’, this is who they’re really talking about. 

I believe strongly that misogyny is still rampant in our society; we only need to look at rates of domestic abuse in the UK, at stories of casual sexual harassment and at the sheer volume of successful figures in the UK who, it turns out, have been getting away with intimidation and harassment of the women around them. 

But tackling misogyny isn’t a ‘single issue’. It can’t be done by or for one group, and it can’t leave other marginalised groups behind. Look at 2023 alone: the LGBTQ+ community - my community - is suffering its worst backlash for years. Not a single FTSE 100 CEO is openly LGTBQ+ (if we are still using this index as a measurement of success).  A public figure who I won’t do the honour of naming filmed himself burning pride flags in his garden. Wickes saw its share price fall for making the once fairly mainstream point that bigots are not necessarily the customers it wants in its stores.

In our industry, 20% of our workforce is from a working class background, versus 40% of our population. Although discrimination in the workplace is improving, the All In Census tells us that three in 10 black people said they were likely to leave due to discrimination - and also that while huge improvements have been made at junior levels for racial diversity, the C Suite still lags. 

The systems that keep difference locked out and privilege, heteronormativity and whiteness locked in oppress women hugely. In order to make real improvements for women we need to understand that we can’t just point to our own journeys and say ‘I made it - problem solved’. We need to use our power to help and protect all marginalised communities - whether that’s helping the brands we work with stand by their Pride campaigns, calling out microaggressions in the workplace, or deconstructing our idea of what the ideal ‘office worker’ should look like and behave. 

So what are some steps we can take?

  • Get some experts into your organisation to deliver training on how to be truly inclusive - Fearless Futures is one example of an organisation doing great work in this space
  • Use your platform! So many are scared to use a C Suite title to bring attention to broader systemic issues, but there are so many well-intentioned people looking for guidance on these topics
  • Show support externally and internally - for example, be clear that Pride backlash will not change your company’s stance on supporting LGBTQ+ staff and the wider community
  • Develop sponsorship programmes - mentoring is great, but having someone senior internally advocating for individuals can be key to their progression

I come from huge privilege - I am white, middle-class, and cis-gendered. I have no doubt this has helped me in my career. My goal at work is to use any power I might have to help other communities, and I would urge any business leaders to do the same. 

Gill Browne, Practice Director - Sustainability & Social Impact, Propeller Group