An Evening with Stephenie Foster

Stephenie Foster (center) and Co-Presidents Sarina Divan (left) & Becca Bean (right)

Stephenie Foster (center) and Co-Presidents Sarina Divan (left) & Becca Bean (right)

Gender Balance Consulting (GBC) welcomed Stephenie Foster, partner at Smash Strategies, as its inaugural speaker at the University of Pennsylvania on October 16th, 2018. As GBC’s VP of Marketing, I had been looking forward to the event for weeks.

Stephenie Foster has an impressive background rooted in women’s empowerment and gender equality. Besides her work at Smash Strategies, a consultancy which works with businesses, philanthropists, and foundations to increase their commitment to women, Foster has been an active participant in the public sector. As Senior Advisor and Counselor to the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Foster implemented policies and programs related to the Women, Peace, and Security Initiative, women’s political participation, and women’s economic empowerment. Foster has represented the United States in a variety of other settings as the Chief of Staff to multiple United States Senators and at the United States embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Needless to say, she was the perfect choice to be GBC’s very first speaker.

Foster’s three-part talk, which was titled “How and Why Businesses Focus on Gender Equality” focused on how increasing women’s participation in the workforce drives economic growth. Foster began by outlining four key points we know about women and economic growth, all which conveyed the idea that there are noticeable economic and social benefits to hiring and promoting women in corporations.

The second part of Foster’s talk highlighted four important lessons that corporations have learned about hiring and promoting women, like how simple actions create a more inclusive culture and that leaders recognize the advantage of women - but talking about the advantages isn’t enough.

Foster hit the nail on the head with these two lessons in particular. Her point that simple actions can create a more inclusive culture, is one that I found true while interning at various companies, where I interacted with people who could have benefited from this advice in order to foster a more inclusive work environment. As I worked at a variety of different companies over the past few years, I have come in contact with people who could’ve used this advice in order to foster a more inclusive work environment.

This summer I interned at a marketing agency with an impressive gender balance record: the staff was evenly split among men and women, and a strong percentage of women had senior leadership positions. It was refreshing to work in such a balanced workplace, and I hope that all women and men get a similar opportunity to do so in their professional lives.

I’ve had experiences on the completely opposite end of the spectrum, too. A few years ago, I was the only woman in a coding class of approximately 30 people. The majority of my male classmates treated me with the respect that I deserved. But, one day when discussing an assignment with one of my classmates, he told me that, as a woman, I should not speak unless spoken to.

Some of my male classmates overheard the exchange and stood up for me. In the following class, they began saving me a seat away from the classmate who had been disrespectful - without me asking them to. It was that small gesture of saving me a seat each class that made me feel more comfortable and gave me the space to learn.

Equally important is Foster’s argument that leaders recognize the advantage of women - but talking about the advantages isn’t enough. It’s not uncommon to see corporations who boast about their gender equality initiatives but have a c-suite and board of directors that is almost exclusively male. It’s not uncommon to see the same trend in clubs and organizations at Penn.

Corporations and student organizations alike need to actively include women because, without action, words mean nothing.

Foster concluded her presentation by outlining eight concrete steps individuals and companies should take to increase gender equality and women participation in the workforce:

  1. Lead by example.

  2. Address the gap in childcare and family responsibilities.

  3. Promote and support reform to laws and policy that impede women’s access to economic opportunity.

  4. Make it easier for women to access to capital and financial services. Invest in women-led businesses.

  5. Source from women-owned businesses.

  6. Get your institution certified or on an index of companies that make women a priority.

  7. Develop products offering that support women.

  8. Support women in the community.

These steps aren’t just relevant to multi-billion dollar companies. They should be applied to the startups and student clubs and organizations, too.

The Stephenie Foster event, which was attended by over 150 students, is the first of what I hope will be a speaker series that will have a tangible impact on the Penn community by helping create a more inclusive environment for everyone.

Thank you to the members of the Penn community who attended the event, and to Stephenie Foster for giving such an important talk.

Ellie Rampulla