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Women in Leadership: What we learned talking diversity with leaders around the globe

Listen: Women in Leadership: What we learned talking diversity with leaders around the globe

March is Women's History Month. To mark the occasion, we’ve been interviewing women CEOs and executives from across industries and around the globe. In our final episode in this special series of the ESG Insider podcast, we hear from three women leaders from very different backgrounds. 

We talk with Dr. Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy of the African Union Commission. She talks about the importance of ensuring women have a seat at the table when designing energy and infrastructure policies. 

We speak to Alethia Jackson, Senior Vice President for ESG and Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer for the U.S. at Walgreens Boots Alliance, a healthcare, pharmacy and retail company with a presence in the U.S., Europe and Latin America. Alethia shares her experience leading during the pandemic and helping her company bring the COVID-19 vaccine to local communities — which she said required trust-building, communication and collaboration. 

And we hear from Jessica Economos, Vice President for Global Diversity Equity & Inclusion at Wolters Kluwer, a Dutch information, software solutions and services company with operations around the globe. She explains how approaches to diversity and equity can vary by region, but respect and inclusion are universal. 

"What resonates regardless of country is inclusion: How we treat others, how we respect others, how we treat and respect our customers and our vendors," Jessica tells us. 

You can listen to previous episodes in our Women in Leadership podcast series here 

Listen to our episode on S&P Global CERAWeek here.  

Read recent research from S&P Global on women in leadership here.

And here.

Photo source: Getty Images 

Copyright ©2023 by S&P Global  


This piece was published by S&P Global Sustainable1, a part of S&P Global.  

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Transcript provided by Kensho.

Lindsey Hall: I'm Lindsey Hall, Head of thought leadership at S&P Global Sustainable1.   

Esther Whieldon: And I'm Esther Whieldon, a senior writer on the Sustainable1 Thought Leadership Team   

Lindsey Hall: Welcome to ESG Insider, a podcast hosted by S&P Global, where we explore environmental, social and governance issues that are shaping investor activity and company strategy. 

Throughout the month of March, we've been doing something a little bit different here at ESG Insider. In addition to our normal programming, we've been bringing you a special series of episodes featuring women leaders for International Women's Day and Women's History Month. We've talked to CEOs and executives around the world and across industries. And we've been asking about their career paths, how they approach diversity, equity and inclusion, how they communicate and how they lead.

Esther Whieldon: Because diversity in leadership has received increasing attention in recent years from stakeholders in the sustainability world, investors have pushed for diversity on company boards and management teams. And in some parts of the world, that push has extended to laws and regulations. But despite that rising focus, the number of women in top roles remains low.

So today, we're going to be hearing from 3 leaders from 3 very different backgrounds. We'll start with Dr. Amani Abou-Zeid, who is Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy of the African Union Commission. Then we'll hear from Alethia Jackson, who is Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer for the U.S. healthcare retailer Walgreens Boots Alliance. And we'll hear from Jessica Economos, who is Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Wolters Kluwer, which is a software services and digital content business.

Okay. First up, let's turn to my interview with Dr. Amani Abou-Zeid, who, as I mentioned, is Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy at the African Union Commission. The African Union, by the way, is comprised of the 55 member states that make up the countries of the African continent. And one of its goals is to promote unity and solidarity among the countries as well as improving cooperation for development in energy, transport and other areas.

Amani is leading several major initiatives, including to advance universal energy access for all via a single electricity market across Africa. She has also been named one of the most influential women in Africa multiple times. And as we'll hear in the interview, she uses her position to advocate for women empowerment and equity.

Before being elected twice to her current position, Amani served in leadership positions in a number of international organizations, including the African Development Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

I sat down with Amani on International Women's Day on March 8 during the S&P Global CERAWeek in Texas, which is this big annual energy conference. While her title mentions only infrastructure and energy, Amani's position also covers tourism and information and communications technology sectors that saw big challenges during the pandemic. Here she is talking about that time and comparing how fast the world is acting on COVID-19 to the slower pace the world has taken on climate change.

Amani Abou-Zeid: I was in charge for infrastructure that's basically all transport, the energy, digitalization and tourism. I'm saying this because when COVID hit in 2020, the 2 major hit sectors, air transport and tourism, completely stopped. I had 2 major, out-of-proportion, unthinkable crises in my hands on -- in one hand; and then I had a fantastic, huge opportunity of digitalization on the other because everyone wanted to digitalize within 2 or 3 weeks.

That's what I keep saying. I'm reminding everybody that the world was digitalized in 3 weeks. Everyone kept saying, oh, yes, that's good to have. Maybe we do, maybe -- I'm saying this because it's the exact same situation for energy, and I'm not seeing the same response. That's why I'm saying to unleash the finance, to look into solutions, to get things done. We cannot just think of first world, the third world, the global North and global South.

This time is different. And if people cannot see that this is even worse than COVID, then they're absolutely wrong and illusioned because where -- I mean if it's the climate -- climate has no borders, so it doesn't really look to the color of your skin or where you are, it's hitting, everywhere.

Second, for that same energy security, whether you're looking for a gas or oil, it's uranium, if you're into -- and we must because, again, it's a clean energy, or critical minerals for the batteries or the cellphones or whatever, all of these, or solar, all of these are in Africa.

So you want energy security, you want to diversify it away and not rely on one source, whether it's batteries from China or gas from Russia or -- the answer to whatever it is, and I challenge everybody, is Africa. Whether people want to recognize this or not, that's another story.

Esther Whieldon: Amani, who is Egyptian, speaks 4 languages, she told me, and has several degrees. When we turned to the topic of how she was able to pursue those multiple degrees, Amani said she always keeps in mind that she had opportunities early in her life than many of the women she represents across Africa don't have. I asked Amani how she uses her current position to help with women and advance gender equity.

You'll hear her mention Jennifer, that's U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who was a keynote luncheon speaker at CERAWeek, but, who according to Amani, also had a meeting with African energy ministers while she was in town. 

How are you able to use your current position to help with women and gender equity?

Amani Abou-Zeid: First, by being.

Esther Whieldon: By what?

Amani Abou-Zeid: By being. Yes, I mean, here, I mean I met people say, oh, we've been watching you doing this or talking about women or being in a forum like this where no one or hardly has spoken or talked about women or celebrate in this day. I just mentioned that like yesterday, we're having a meeting, African ministers and Jennifer was there also, your Secretary.

And the first thing that I said, I mean, look at them around the table, how many -- that's good to have this much women, but we also need more, and let's just celebrate the fact that we are here. I mean you have to speak up and remind people that you exist because they tend to not see women, whether anywhere in the world, by the way, they don't see.

Esther Whieldon: But you make sure you're seen at some point.

Amani Abou-Zeid: Oh, yes, yes, yes, all the time. And they interrupt you if you are talking to someone. I want you to pay attention to these little and subtle things. You would be, for instance here in the hotel, talking to the reception or someone and then a man budges in, and he starts talking to the clerk while you were still talking to him. He clearly is seeing you talking to him, but he does not see that you are talking to him. You just see the...

Esther Whieldon: He doesn't observe it...

Amani Abou-Zeid: No, you don't exist. In his eyes, you don't exist. So he -- or you say, oh, I'm sorry, do you have -- when I say -- I say, no, you, please wait. I do like this and I do it and extend my arm, please wait, I'm talking, wait until I finish. You have to do these things because people think that -- they walk all over you. And there are lots of theories also about the invisible woman.

Esther Whieldon: So Lindsey, funny anecdote here, we just heard Amani talk about instances where men don't see women or try to walk all over them. Well, I have to tell you that just after I finished interviewing her, I headed off to a panel session. And as I was working my way through the crowd, a man veered right into my path and walked smack-dab into me.

He literally knocked my notepad out of my hand and didn't even look at me or apologized and just kept walking. And I found myself, like Amani said, instinctively apologizing for having been in his way. And then Amani's words came back to me and I thought, oh, man, she's right.

Lindsey Hall: That's so interesting. I definitely have been in that situation where I find myself apologizing for uncomfortable situations that are in no way my own making. It's something I have to really push back against.

Esther Whieldon: Exactly. You know, I wonder how much we are conditioned as women to just ignore these things until someone like Amani comes along and pulls back the veil like she did for me that day. Amani also talked about how our efforts to raise attention to gender equity issues comes up in her role when we talked about trying to bring electricity to all of Africa. Here she is again.

Amani Abou-Zeid: Even yesterday, people talk about energy, about access to energy like electricity. I talk about always about electricity and clean cooking. Even our own ministers, yesterday, I challenged them. I mean African ministers say, oh, no, we are electrified. I mean we -- I said, no, I'm sorry, you don't have clean cooking. It's only 30% of your population, yesterday.

I mean what about women who are bringing the firewood or cutting whatever or spending 2, 3 hours just for the charcoal to cook a meal. Why is the -- for him, the statistic is that we have electricity, yes, but there are other types of energy. And to do that, she spends 3 or 4, 5 hours of her time every day, a girl or a woman, to get you that meal done or prepared, on top of everything else, of course, that she is suffering.

So talk about lost opportunities as well. And the health today, the women and children are the ones who grow up with respiratory problems because of the smoke. How is that not related to energy? When energy prices hit -- well, here, you're not -- you don't know it or you don't see it because it's not -- does not concern the U.S., but the majority of our food is imported, by the way.

And agriculture, we are dependent on imported fertilizers from the same source, from also Ukraine and some from Russia. So the war is affecting seriously also the food, cultural food crisis. We have a major, major, major, across the world, major food crisis, especially for us in Africa. How is that not connected to women who are supposed to put food on the table, would prepare it?

Even the inflationary trends that we have, it's still in our -- most parts of the world. It's a woman's job to -- finance of the family, she's the one in charge of that. It is putting an incredible strain on women. COVID, no one spoke of the 60% to 80% of the medical teams anywhere in the world are made of women. The ones who provide care to the family whenever they're sick, let alone what happened in COVID, are women.

Esther Whieldon: And many of them had to leave the workplace to do that, right?

Amani Abou-Zeid: Yes. And to that, that also in Africa, many of them are in the informal sector, it means that when -- because of the lockdown, everything that happened, suddenly nothing, no income, zero income. How many people are talking about that? So I made sure that they want to talk to me about something, I say no, we'll talk about women.

Esther Whieldon: Here's the point I need to talk about.

Amani Abou-Zeid: Yes. Later this afternoon, I'm having a plenary. I'm going to start by talking about women or I'll make sure that women are -- the issue is also mentioned.

Esther Whieldon: So you can use your platform to keep it in attention...

Amani Abou-Zeid: Yes. But that's women as victims or as at the end of the value chain or as the recipients. Now what we have done also that we have established the African women for -- in infrastructure, in general, because we want to see women in top positions. We want to see them designing the policies. We want to see -- not to have policies being gender sensitive.

That's not what I'm saying. I mean upstream now because the policy to be gender sensitive, that's fine, but that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying, no, she should be the one designing the policy. She should be up there in top position in any organization in boardrooms.

Esther Whieldon: So if you were giving advice about how to best help women in Africa across all ... lack of privilege and above or even wherever you decide, what would you give like if you were -- if you got one piece of advice or one...

Amani Abou-Zeid: Education, education, education, education, education, education, and I can never stop. However, this education has to be, how they say...

Esther Whieldon: STEM or...

Amani Abou-Zeid: In STEM, I mean, any -- not just in STEM. I mean an artist is as important to the world as an engineer. I'm not undermining anything, but the thing is that you have to always be tuned to the market. You have to always be tuned to the trend and not be shy to change even the course of your career, the course of your education for something new because, first, because it's fascinating. You are missing out on the things that are fascinating that is happening all around us; two, and that's my advice to everybody, women and men...

Lindsey Hall: I love what Amani said about how we should never stop learning.

Esther Whieldon: Yes. And what she said to me has really stuck out about how we need to think about all forms of energy, not just electricity access when we talk about gender equality because there are still many women who cook over wood stoves in Africa and who are suffering the health impacts as a result.

Lindsey Hall: Esther, this topic of health equity was also a big focus in my interview with Alethia Jackson of Walgreens Boots Alliance. That's the integrated health care, pharmacy and retail company with approximately 13,000 locations across the U.S., Europe and Latin America. Alethia is Senior Vice President, ESG, and Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, or DEI Officer for the U.S. And she described her path to this role as nontraditional. An attorney by training, she worked in health care and insurance before joining Walgreens. And here she is talking about her trajectory.

Alethia Jackson: I worked for insurance regulators and then I moved over and represented large health insurers and looking across the industry to see how we could work better with community, how we can address health disparities and be a good partner for the government. And after that role, I was recruited to come over to Walgreens as we were building out our policy arm.

And I was excited about the work that the company was doing, again, in community and in health care and that many people didn't realize the extent to which Walgreens was embedded in community, how many health care providers we employed and the role that we are playing in people's everyday health care meeting those needs.

Lindsey Hall: Was this path smooth-sailing? Or what were some of the challenges that you faced along this road?

Alethia Jackson: So not smooth-sailing at all, again, incredibly nontraditional as I didn't go to a law firm. I moved to Washington and started job hunting and knocking on doors and landed my job. And when I did, I was -- really, when I walked into our room, I was usually the youngest person, one of a few females and one of a few people of color who were in the room with people who have been practicing in the insurance world for many years and were accustomed to doing things in a particular way.

And so one of my -- the challenges that I faced was really having people understand my expertise and having that really regarded as a value. And so it was a matter of me just leaning into the work and really gaining the respect and partnership of others that I was working with. And so those were some of the challenges that I faced.

Lindsey Hall: Does anything come to mind as you're thinking back on what worked well to establish that expertise and to show people that you knew what you were doing and you deserved a seat at the table?

Alethia Jackson: Sure. It was, one, continuing to show up, continuing to leverage my voice and making sure that, again, as I had a seat at the table that I was bringing value, and so speaking up with my opinion, speaking out with advice and also not being afraid to bring new ideas to the table and see and reimagine things in a different way and helping bring others along with that, bring them along with the facts and the data, and that's what I would do.

And people began to say, wow, okay, you did the research. You know the history behind this policy, but yet, you're refuting it with new data and new information. And it actually was a bridge-builder for me. I -- it resulted in me building some amazing allies and mentors.

Lindsey Hall: Okay. So you used that term bridge-builder, and that was actually something that I noted in the press release that announced your new role. It describes that you will be -- your job will be to counsel leadership and connect with team members on ESG matters, serving as an adviser, bridge-builder and strategic partner.

And the reason I noted that is because I don't know I've previously seen a job description that includes the term bridge-builder. Can you talk to me more about that? It sounds like maybe that's been an important thing for you throughout your career.

Alethia Jackson: Absolutely. It really is a matter of continuing to find those intersections and places of alignment when we look at some of the toughest issues that we're tackling, whether it's health inequities, whether it's the social determinants of health that drive that, whether it's climate and the environment and finding, again, where are those points and intersections that, one, what role can we play as a company and then where do partners play a role and how do partners help bridge gaps and how do we do the same in order to really move forward with our overall goal, and so finding and being really creative about where we find those partnerships in those programs and initiatives that help move the needle.

Lindsey Hall: Any specific examples throughout your career really where you felt like that bridge-building happened effectively and you were able to kind of leverage your communication skills to do that bridge-building work?

Alethia Jackson: Sure. I'll give the most recent one because I think it's fresh in all of our minds when we think about COVID-19. And so it's one of those things, in many ways, it unified us because we were all in a pandemic together regardless of race, ethnicity, social class, while we do know that the impacts of the virus were -- definitely had disparities in the way they showed up.

But it was a time in which we were able to, as we looked at our role in community and our role in administering the vaccine, we were able to look across the environment and the landscape and say, where are those very local partners, where are the governmental partners, where are the national partners that we can bring all together and leverage our ability to build trust and community to provide education, information and, most importantly, provide access.

And so if I just walk you through an example of that, for us, we worked with Uber because we knew that transportation was a barrier. And so we were able to connect individuals who wanted to have access to the transportation in order to receive their vaccine. We were also able to connect with community organizations to reach into those hard-to-reach communities with information as well as access to the vaccine. And so we were able to serve in a way that we brought together multiple points of connectivity into the community.

And then we were also able to take the value data that we were receiving about where people were receiving vaccines, where they were under-indexing for vaccines and some of the hesitancy that we heard. And we're able to also share that with others as they were developing programs as well as the government in their way to be able to continue to reach out to communities and just have a better understanding of what people were seeing on the ground.

Lindsey Hall: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. And you used that word trust. I was just at a conference where trust came up a lot in conversations about climate justice initiatives and how companies that want to partner with communities to pursue climate justice, environmental justice, really need to do a lot of trust-building work. And I wonder if you find the same thing in your role, that trust-building is really a key component. And if so, how does that actually happen?

Alethia Jackson: So it absolutely is. Trust-building and also hearing and listening from the community because every community is going to need potentially a different approach based on where they sit and just being very in tune to those community needs. And so building trust is, one, consistency, so you don't just show up once. You are consistently there.

Hearing and really listening to the concerns, for us, we also have the good fortune of having a very diverse workforce. When we think about our pharmacists and other professionals that are in our stores and community, they often are reflective of those communities in which they're serving, which also goes a long way in helping to build trust.

And so we know that it's a continuous process as well. And just, again, continuing to engage, continuing to be receptive and recognizing it's a conversation, and we are really trying to meet the specific needs and that it doesn't show up in just one way, but trust-building is critically important in this work.

Lindsey Hall: I asked Alethia about her leadership style and whether that changed during the pandemic.

Alethia Jackson: So I would say it has to continue to evolve based on what's in front of you. And so my leadership style, my leadership style is collaborative. It's responding to what is before me in the best way possible and taking new approaches, remaining nimble and knowing that the best answers may not just come from me, right? And so it's enabling others to add to that.

I always like to think of the work almost like a writer's workshop where you may come in and you have what you maybe call a treatment, right? You start with here's the thought, here's the plan, but continuing to workshop that to get to the best practical solution possible, and that takes a lot of input from others.

My communication style is I really try to present in as clear a way as possible, but also I try to understand what the other person is hearing, right, because regardless of what we say, people hear things differently. And so really requesting feedback and ensuring that we're in a dialogue and more than what someone says, getting behind what's driving that. So what's motivating the individual, whether it's the words or the action and asking that.

So sort of what's driving that? What made you think that? Or are we aligned? Are we on the same page? And what does success look like for us? So we want to identify what we're trying to solve for. Have -- do we agree on what success looks like? And so we are also moving in the same direction and driving for that same results.

Lindsey Hall: And as we talk about health equity, I'd like to come back to your role in the company's COVID-19 vaccine equity initiatives because that is such a recent and unprecedented, really, example of having to lead and lead at a time of, really, crisis. And if you can peel back the curtain a little bit for us, like what did it look like behind the scenes, the kinds of conversations you were having and the kinds of decisions you were having to make as a leader in this really intense situation?

Alethia Jackson: Sure. So I'll start with, to your point, we were in an intense and for many of us unprecedented situation. Things were changing rapidly and constantly. And there was really no road map to success, but allowing our vision, purpose and values be the anchoring force and the driver for everything that we did.

And so as we began to, one, think through our role as we were going to be receiving the vaccine in charge with administering the vaccine, we immediately recognized that we had to have concerted efforts to reach those hardest-to-reach communities. And so we stood up a vaccine equity task force. And it was a cross-functional task force really for every unit across the company that was going to touch the vaccine in some way or that played a role.

We had a representative on there from pharmacy operations to our community affairs, DEI, communications. And what we wanted to ensure is that we, one, were working under some principles that would be our, again, our guiding force. Ours was education and information, partnerships in access. And so anchoring ourselves in those, building out partnerships with organizations that again helped -- really helped fill the gap, helped partner to build trust in communities and provide greater access.

And so we immediately stood up those partnerships and continued to work through those and really utilized our incredibly committed workforce as well across communities. And so administering vaccines in the stores, but also taking the vaccine out of our four walls. And so going even deeper into community to where people lived, worked and played.

And so whether that was in churches, community centers, we had a bus that went around the country and hit 18 cities, and we would go to where people were going to be commuting to work. We were there for sort of nontraditional hours so that we can reach people who were in route to work or coming home from work and reach communities.

And we set them up like community events. And so there may have been music and food and other things to help, again, make it more communal to help build trust and break down any barriers. And we were just incredibly intentional and committed to that. And we have the good fortune of working with so many partners across the country on that.

Lindsey Hall: Alethia touched on many of the themes we've been hearing throughout this series. Like many of the women we've spoken to, her path to an executive role took a lot of sometimes unexpected turns. It wasn't straightforward. She talked about the challenges she faced early in her career, often being the youngest or the only woman in the room.

And as we've heard from some women in this series, even once they were in those executive roles, they still have to work to establish their expertise to feel like they had earned their seat at the table. I cannot forget what we heard from Marita Zuraitis, the CEO of insurance company Horace Mann, about the number of times she's been mistaken for a coat-check attendee in work settings.

We also heard Alethia talk just now about the role of bridge-building, of reaching across the aisles to find places to align even on the toughest topics. And those tough topics include health equity. Given her role at a company with such a broad network of retail pharmacies, Alethia had a front-row seat to the way the health care ecosystem responded to COVID-19. And as you heard her say, Esther, that required a lot of trust-building in local communities, a lot of listening and a lot of collaboration.

Esther Whieldon: This idea came up a lot in the series. It was striking to hear how many women leaders highlight the importance of listening to the diverse viewpoints of the people around them. Several women we've interviewed expressed this idea that I don't have all the answers. I rely on the expertise of the network around me. And this idea also came up in our interview with the next guest.

For that, let's bring in our colleague, Jennifer Laidlaw, to introduce. Jennifer is a Senior Writer on the Thought Leadership team with us at S&P Global Sustainable1, and she has been conducting many of the interviews for the series. So Jen, welcome back. What can you tell us about our next guest?

Jennifer Laidlaw: So I spoke to Jessica Economos. She's the Vice President for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Wolters Kluwer, which is a software services and digital content business. Jessica took up the role in 2021. It was a completely new role. Wolters Kluwer is headquartered in the Netherlands and has a large presence in the U.S. and India. Now in this podcast, we've heard a lot about the impact women leaders can have on company culture. Wolters Kluwer has a woman CEO, and Jessica explained what that means for the company.

Jessica Economos: Definitely, the very fact that we have a female CEO, we know that, that still isn't a normal occurrence, I'd say, within corporate environments globally, I would say helps us, and it definitely helps us from a talent acquisition perspective and a customer acquisition perspective. I would also say that I've seen all of our colleagues across the globe. So not only our female executives, we have strong female representation.

But also that male representation is really sponsoring in it being an ally for the broad base of diversity in which we serve, gender, obviously, being one of them. But we operate in over 40 countries and serve customers across 190 countries. And so thinking about national diversity and other components of diversity is really important as we bring our products to market.

Jennifer Laidlaw: Yes, because I think that's something that's very interesting when companies are like yours are so international. I mean what are the some of the cultural differences that you see in different markets? And how do you deal with that?

Jessica Economos: Yes. So it's just really core to how we have to operate, not only internally, but externally how we sell to customers. And so from that perspective, even as we thought about creating the DE&I role, we really wanted to make sure what that meant as a European organization with a strong -- or a large population within the United States and within India and the other countries where we operate.

And so really, how we created that common understanding of what does diversity mean in the global context and being very broad in that definition. So we talk at over 20 different elements of diversity. That was really important to broaden the conversation, what it really means from an equity perspective and then, ultimately, what does that mean from an inclusion and belonging perspective.

And some of the things we see is really about just what are the types of conversations that employees want to have in the workplace, what is the level of information our customers want to receive to on our programs, and that definitely varies based upon the country. And so we're working within this global framework with really that local impact. And so we often talk about a global approach.

Jennifer Laidlaw: Is there any specific differences that you see, for example, between the Netherlands or the Dutch company about having a strong implantation in the U.S.?

Jessica Economos: Yes. Yes, it's a great question. So from that perspective, I would say what resonates regardless of country is inclusion. So how we treat others, how we respect others, how we treat and respect our customers and our vendors. Also the sense of belonging about that authenticity that you need to bring to the workplace to perform your best work and fulfill your personal purpose.

What's really different and, I would say, causes -- I wouldn't say friction in the organization, but causes good conversation is about what is the definition of diversity. So within the Netherlands, it's very common to talk about gender diversity or neurodiversity or physical diversity, those sort of things. It's less common, up until recently in the recent years, to really talk about race and/or ethnicity.

And so part of the work we've had to do is really to help people understand that and why that looks different and why that's okay and why it's important to learn about the cultures where your colleagues work. So most of our teams are global. And so it's really important for our Netherlands colleagues to understand what is the work experience in the United States, what's the work experience in India, in China, Germany, as an example, so that they really can create that sense of empathy and understanding of how to operate in those global teams.

So we employ a lot of technologists within India. We have several large software hubs and product teams and then also our IT and information systems teams as well. What I would say relative to gender diversity in India is, especially as we look at the early career talent in a female technologist, we've really worked on bringing those into the organization. The challenge they face relative to growing their career and their personal desire to have a career with the obligations they have with family.

And so from that perspective, we're really focused on how do we create the right workplace flexibility policies, childcare services, those sort of things. And we're also getting ready to pilot a returnship program that really allows our employees to go away to do what they need to do for whatever personal reason, whether that's raising children or caring for an elderly parent, allowing them to take that time away, but also when they're ready to come back and rejoin Wolters Kluwer and continue their career.

And so we've really been focused on that, and we're going to continue to evolve that over time. And I think there's a real opportunity there to make a difference not only for our employees, but also for society as a whole.

Jennifer Laidlaw: I just wondered as well, since you've taken on the position for diversity, equity, inclusion, what kind of changes maybe have you seen in employee representation, in female representation in your efforts to kind of close gender gaps at the company?

Jessica Economos: So right now, we do have 46% diversity in our overall female workforce population. That is far above the averages for technology organizations. And so as we continue to move into more of a digital business and a technology business, how do we keep that representation? How do we not only acquire the representation, but then also how do we grow and develop so that they stay? And so that's a constant effort of all of us in the organization. We report on it and we review it with our Executive Board bimonthly and really make sure we have the right programs and practices in place to be able to do that.

We have also broadened our definition. So we are a European organization. But again, with that large presence in other countries, we've brought in the definition within the U.S. to also include race and ethnicity. This is our second year reporting on that within our annual report. And then we've also started reporting on disability as well as that's something we see as really a space that we need to play. It's responsible, and it's really a great opportunity as we continue to move forward.

Jennifer Laidlaw: Throughout this series, we've been talking about recent research S&P Global conducted, looking at the way women leaders communicate. It shows there's differences in the language that women use and the sentiments they express. I asked Jessica what her experience was.

Jessica Economos: What I think that female leaders are really able to do is, one, communicate a sense of connection. So really that ability to bring together maybe to start business processes or to start product lines or to start teams and really see the ability to connect the dots for those teams and bring those together in a meaningful way. So I think that's the strength females bring to leadership positions.

The other, I would say, is really communicating from that sense of empathy and really being able to understand the employee experience and what that means and really connecting back with the employee population. That was incredibly important during the pandemic. But I think as it continued to emerge, as we've progressed and continue to evolve as an organization, I really just don't believe we're going to go back to what workplaces look like in 2018.

Jennifer Laidlaw: How did you deal with the whole pandemic? And in what ways do you think that's maybe changed the way you work or in your leadership style?

Jessica Economos: For myself, personally, I would say, in many ways, connectivity as well as authenticity were just core to who I am. I often joke with people that I don't have a choice but to be authentic because it's really too complicated to try to keep my work and personal life separate. I live a pretty integrated life.

What I would say the pandemic taught me personally was really about deepening my sense of empathy. It was a point that I really got to sit back and I got to reflect and really understand what do people bring into the workplace. And then ultimately how -- what they were bringing into the workplace, how is that affecting their engagement and their performance on the job.

And so I really learned to slow down. And before jumping to an assumption about what was happening, really learning to slow down and making sure I was asking the right questions and thinking about how do we better support and enable moving forward.

Jennifer Laidlaw: I also asked her about the challenges she's faced during her career. And one of the answers really resonated with me: imposter syndrome. Here she is explaining. She mentions CHRO, that's a Chief Human Resources Officer.

Jessica Economos: So I often was one of the youngest individuals in the room, not necessarily always the female, but one of the youngest. So I often challenge myself to say, you don't have enough experience. You don't have enough skills. You haven't lived enough life to create a meaningful difference within this team. And so what I have to do is really stop listening to that voice, right? Look for those positive affirmations, look for the difference I was making, and that continues to be a lifelong journey for me.

One place where I really was able to challenge that was about 10 years ago. I had been promoted to a director role. And both the HR leader and the business leader at the time, and I acknowledged it was before I was ready, but they needed to do it for a couple of different business reasons. And shortly thereafter, that senior HR leader and that business leader left the organization. And I was left to report to our CHRO at the time and a new business leader who was coming in to drive transformation.

And so every day, I had to show up with grit, determination and really a lot of hard work to prove not only to myself, but ultimately to them that I had the ability to not only contribute and do the routine tasks that really make a difference within the business strategy as well. And so that was, I would say, one of those crowning moments for me that was pivotal relative to my ability not only to put the grit and determination to it, but actually get the result to build that confidence moving forward.

Esther Whieldon: I think that's a nice way to end this episode and the series: this message from Jessica about the importance of grit, determination and hard work.

Jennifer Laidlaw: Yes. And I also really liked what she had to say about the importance of an integrated life. We heard the idea come through in my interview with the CEO of South African real estate investment trust, Attacq, this idea that leaders can really integrate their work and personal life.

Lindsey Hall: And last thing that stood out for me was Jessica's acknowledgment of how there are differences in diversity and equity according to where you are in the world. But she said that respect and inclusion are global, and that's such a powerful message to end the series on. We've heard so many stories from women leaders around the world and across industries. And while there's a lot of differences, there's also so much that is consistent across these interviews and their experience.

Thanks for listening to the interviews and the special Women in Leadership Series. We'll include a link in our show notes to the entire series if you'd like to listen to more. And we'll continue to cover diversity, equity and inclusion in future episodes, along with our broader coverage of all the issues shaping ESG and sustainability world.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of ESG Insider and a special thanks to our producer, Kyle Cangialosi. Please be sure to subscribe to our podcast and sign up for our weekly newsletter, ESG Insider. See you next time.   

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