Deputy Digital Editor of Fortune Magazine Kristen Bellstrom & GE’s Vice Chair Beth Comstock. Photo by Krisanne Johnson
It’s no secret that the playing field for men and women in corporate America is far from level. Women are underrepresented at every level of the workforce — and while most companies want to do the right thing and shift this dynamic, it’s tricky to know what steps to take in order to effect real change.
That’s why Fairygodboss convened its first-ever Galvanize Summit on Nov. 1 and 2, where the leaders of Fortune 500 companies’ women’s resource groups gathered to share ideas and best practices. GE’s Vice Chair Beth Comstock, who was interviewed by Deputy Digital Editor of Fortune Magazine Kristen Bellstrom, shared her insight with the crowd: “Change is hard,” she said, because “you have to stop doing what you’re doing and do something new. You have to see some incentive and reward in doing it.”
She said that while disrupting routines can be a constant challenge, she’s proud of the progress GE has made in making its workforce more diverse. “We’ve become more tolerant of difference, and I think that has made us more innovative,” she told the audience.
While the 125-year-old company has a rich history, it’s always looking toward the future and raising the bar. Earlier this year, for instance, GE announced that by 2020, it hopes to have 20,000 women in STEM roles, as well as 50:50 female/male representation in each of its technical entry-level programs.
Still, Comstock stressed that “it’s not enough.” She said that even though GE is working hard to recruit women out of college and get them into women-focused education and training programs, “as women progress in their career, we don’t have the numbers we should. All of us know we could be better; we just haven’t cracked the code.”
Comstock added that focusing on both the short term and long term can be very difficult — so it’s important to make long-term goals a priority. She offered some practical advice for company leaders who are having trouble implementing change, explaining that she’s a big proponent of bringing in outside influences and challenging the current mindset. “You have to make room for that in your own brain,” she said. “I’m big on testing, piloting, and giving people permission to test.”
For those who are hesitant to embrace the “fail fast, fail often” mentality, Comstock had some simple advice: “No one likes to fail. But test things earlier; do it in a smaller way. That way, failures are smaller. Reduce the definition of where you want to fail.”
When Bellstrom broached the subject of sexual harassment, Comstock said she feels encouraged and takes comfort in the fact that people are coming out and speaking up about their experiences. She and Bellstrom agreed that perhaps the only positive aspect of the recent new stories is the conversations that have resulted.
“You need to have the discussion,” Comstock said. “You need to start with having the conversations and say, ‘what are we going to do to change our behavior?’” She added that for this issue in particular, women’s networks can be a particularly powerful resource — because women might feel more comfortable speaking up in a women-focused space than they would approaching HR.
Comstock also emphasized the role that mentors and sponsors can play in advancing women in the workplace. She shared a personal anecdote to illustrate what that’s looked like for her: “I’ve really struggled with confidence,” she revealed. “I’m introverted by nature; I’m shy. I’ve had people call me out on it. Jeff Immelt [GE’s Chairman and CEO] has had to tell me, ‘you need to speak up. You’re here because I want your opinion.’ I’m fortunate to have people like that call me out in a safe space.”
Comstock added that she’s a big fan of networks and gave a shout out to GE’s women’s network, which has offered women a space to lead when they might not otherwise assume a leadership position. She encouraged the crowd to utilize their women’s networks: “People have your back and see you as a leader in a way that they maybe haven’t before.”
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