New Website LedBetter Maps the Glass Ceiling of Nearly 2,000 Major Consumer Brands

Consumers often want to know the ethical and environmental practices behind the products they choose to buy. These days it's relatively easy to find out what the goes on behind the scenes of your favorite coffee from seed to cup, what kind of labor practices are involved in the farming of organic produce or the production of clothing. But, what about gender equity in company leadership?

A new website that provides data on the gender ratio of corporate leadership at nearly 2,000 major consumer brands launches today. LedBetter, created by Iris Kuo and Camille Ricketts, is an interactive site that shows how many women are represented on a company's board of directors and chief executive staff. The database also scores and ranks the companies on gender equality based on quantitative data culled from company websites, annual reports, and investor relations materials.

Kuo, a journalist and writer based in New York, recalls reading a 2013 Washington Post story in which former Sanford Bernstein CEO Sallie Krawcheck remarked that women would perhaps boycott a product if they were made aware of the gender disparity at the company's leadership, but that information isn't easily accessible. Kuo emailed the story to Ricketts, and the two began hatching a plan for a tool that would provide that exact service to consumers.

In her research, Kuo discovered that while women make 85 percent of the purchasing decisions in the United States, they hold fewer than 20 percent of the board seats in the S&P 1500 stock market index.

“Looking at those numbers—20 percent board representation versus 85 percent of decisions on dollars spent—that's pretty disconcerting,” says Kuo. “I think a lot of women would be interested in knowing who they're buying from.”

Ricketts, a marketing executive in San Francisco, says that making the aggregated, quantitative data user-friendly was important to the project. “LedBetter makes it very straightforward to see the gender breakdown in company leadership. I hope people will be at a store, where they'll have many choices of product[s] to buy, and they can choose which brand they want to support because it's easy to find that information on LedBetter.”

The database started out simply as a spreadsheet in 2013. “We just pecked away at it, not really knowing how we were going to get it to this vision,” says Kuo. They worked on the passion project for a long time, researching on nights and weekends, slowly compiling more and more data. To get to the next stage, however, they needed more infrastructure. Kuo applied for a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund, and the project was selected from a pool of over 600 applicants.

The grant money made it possible for Kuo and Ricketts to hire a web developer. Then it took another year of research and development before the website was ready for launch.

Of the 230 parent companies (that own nearly 2,000 brands) surveyed, nine have zero women in their top leadership positions as board members or executives. One of the lowest-ranking companies on LedBetter's gender equality index is Coty, the beauty and personal care products manufacturer that owns Sally Hansen, OPI, Rimmel London, and Philosophy.

“How do you build a makeup company, a company that sells products almost exclusively to women, and yet there are no women at the head of the company?” Kuo asks. “I find that very surprising.”

Companies that LedBetter gave a zero score (meaning no women are on the board or are executive leaders) include Samsung and Nintendo.

On the other end of spectrum, H&M Group ranked high in the gender equality index: 58 percent of board members are women and 41 percent of the company's leadership team is women. Best Buy, Prada Group, and Unilever were other high scorers.

“We see our role as shining a light on these numbers,” Kuo says. “Parsing the information for users that makes it very obvious which companies are scoring poorly, which companies are scoring well.”

The cofounders are encouraging people to visit the website to search for their favorite brands and to share their findings on social media. Though there are no immediate plans of boycotts or other advocacy, Ricketts says she hopes that LedBetter will show companies that consumers are paying attention to gender in corporate leadership.

A month before the website's launch, the LedBetter research team fact-checked the entire database to ensure its accuracy. Looking ahead, Kuo says, “Of course things change: Companies remove and add people all the time. The goal I have is to update this on a yearly basis and to put out a report every year on what's changed, who's doing better, if anyone has gone down.” In addition to benchmarks on gender, she adds that LedBetter is interested in exploring intersectional diversity metrics, such as race, in the future.

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by Jean Ho
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Jean Ho is a writer in LA. She was born in Taiwan and grew up in southern California. Her work has been published at NPR Code Switch, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Flavorwire, and others. She's currently a fiction fellow at USC’s Creative Writing & Literature PhD program. Read her tweets at www.twitter.com/jeanho.

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