Warren Buffett just became the world’s richest person to Lean In. After reading Sheryl Sandberg's book, he wrote an article for next week’s issue of Fortune about the need for women’s equality in the work place.
When more than 30,000 people come to hear you answer questions about business and one of the world’s most notorious Old Boys’ Clubs hangs on every word you say, making a statement like this is a huge deal. When someone of Buffett’s stature (he was named one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People in 2012) owns his privilege with a quote like this: “The moment I emerged from my mother's womb ... my possibilities dwarfed those of my [sisters], for I was a boy,” it gives an influential voice to these issues in places and with people that typically try and shut them out.
Yet, just a couple of months ago, Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, finished dead last in a study of corporate diversity practices among the S&P 500. Even after appointing a third woman to his board, which is something that only 13% of companies have been able to pull off, Warren still has a good bit of leaning in left to do. Here are a few ideas for what he and Berkshire Hathaway can do next:
1. Get out of last place
Berkshire Hathaway didn’t just come in last in Calvert’s survey of diversity at the S&P 100, it finished with just 5 out of 100 possible points. (Citigroup and Merck both had perfect scores). Calvert only used publicly available information in the assessment, which means that, after getting its 5 points for having women on its board, Berkshire Hathaway has given no public proof of having any of the following:
- Internal diversity efforts focused on supporting and developing women and minorities
- Supplier diversity programs that encourage supporting women and minority owned businesses
- Family-friendly work benefits
Given the lack of information on Berkshire Hathaway’s ultra modern website, it may be that the company has these policies but doesn’t advertise them. Whether or not that's the case, Buffett has created a huge opportunity for himself to lead the business community on this issue by putting these things in place (or by being more transparent and showing that they're already being done). It would go a long way for him to open up the curtain and use Berkshire Hathaway’s platform to set the standard in these areas.
2. Use his shareholder clout
Buffett doesn’t only own a piece of just about anything you buy, he tends to own big pieces of those companies. That gives him a ton of clout with the leaders of those corporations, and the opportunity to push them to improve in these areas at the same time. In his article, he acknowledges that this push for equality won’t come easily, saying that “resistance among the powerful is natural when change clashes with their self-interest.” Yet, he has the portfolio to give the powerful a reason to move on these issues. If he uses it, he can influence even broader change throughout the business world.
3. Start talking about the small things
Policies that promote equality for women in the workplace are massively important, but they’re not the whole solution. While overt sexism and misogyny still rear their heads in far too many board rooms and offices, too many women are also held back in more subtle ways. The discussion around microinequities has started to highlight the smaller slights, challenges and road blocks women face at work. Whether it's being valued less because women are expected to take notes all the time, missing out on key relationship building opportunities because women aren't invited to play golf or have drinks after work, or losing out on promotions because of all of the harmful subconscious biases about women that are built into our media and culture, it's hard for even the best intentioned workplaces to create a truly equal environment. Making big efforts to address these seemingly little, but ultimately really damaging, issues is another key to Warren's dream of fully utilizing 100% of the American workforce.
Even though his company has plenty of room left to grow in this area, Buffett's article still does a huge service by bringing this conversation to his enormous, and probably not very heavily feminist, constituency. So I'm grateful for his decision to speak up, and I just hope he keeps on leaning in.