For a long time, social scientists and economists were dismissive of notions such as “conscious consumption,” or the idea that substantial environmental or social change could occur through individual purchasing decisions.
Yet recent work by economist Robert H. Frank shows that behavioral or social contagion can occur through seemingly small individual actions. For example, when individuals commit to reducing their carbon footprint by eating one less burger a week, turning off unnecessary lights, or even buying a Prius, the environment benefits over time.
There are two main reasons for why these individual actions deliver societal impact. First, individual commitments add up; over time, our small actions change our long-term behavior. Second, gradually our behavioral changes shape our values and our interests, even impacting those around us in our homes, at our workplaces, and in our communities. They may lead us to vote, invest, influence policy, and advocate differently than we otherwise would have.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, #EachforEqual, is based on the same notion: collective individualism. It is the idea that we all are parts of a whole, and that “our individual actions, conversations, behaviors, and mindsets can have an impact on our larger society, and collectively we can each help to create a gender-equal world.”
We’ve already seen great examples of this throughout history. Rosa Parks sparked a movement that changed laws and our culture. More recently, Susan Fowler’s description of her time at Uber exposed a culture of misogyny and harassment, forcing a change at the company’s highest level.
At SAP, we each have the opportunity to change culture every day. Diversity and inclusion ambassadors all over the company work closely within their own business units to impact our culture. Individual employees act as agents of change and speak up when they see discrepancies in policies and practices. Those individual actions have helped change our parental leave policies, helped make our job descriptions more flexible, and led us to select more suppliers that meet our needs while supporting minority-owned businesses.
When the world’s challenges seem daunting and we feel helpless, we need to recognize that every dollar we spend, every micro-kindness we extend, every vote we cast, and every idea we voice has amplifying potential to move the needle.
What steps can you take to move the needle when it comes to gender equity? Here are just a few ideas:
- Ordering supplies, or hiring vendors? Take the time to find women or minority-owned businesses.
- Growing your workforce? Ensure you have a diverse slate of candidates and interviewers.
- Trying to retain the best talent and limit onboarding and training costs? Ensure men and women are being paid equally for the same roles.
- Designing a new business process? Consider using the persona of someone underrepresented in the business, such as a mother returning to work after an extended absence, and see how they would be impacted.
- Leading a meeting at work? Ensure everyone has a chance to speak. If they don’t volunteer, proactively ask each participant for their thoughts and perspectives. Express appreciation for each contribution.
- Trying to build your empathy muscle? Attend an event where you are the minority. Learn what it feels like to the “the only” at the table.
- Taking paternity leave? Be public about this choice and share that you are excited about having the time to bond and care for your newborn child. Blast it on social media like Chance the Rapper did.
- Managing a remote team? Use inclusive behaviors that nurture ownership and accountability so all team members experience a sense of belonging and have the same opportunity to contribute.
- Heading somewhere new in town? Imagine being blind or wheelchair-bound and ask yourself if the roads and sidewalks would work for you. If not, talk to local officials about how to change this.
Systemic inequity in government, the private sector, and society at large takes time and effort to fix. But in the words of Gandhi, we each need to be the change you want to see in the world.
As you reflect in the wake of International Women’s Day, think about embodying that change and do your part to spread social contagion.
Shuchi Sharma is global head of Gender Equality and Intelligence at SAP.