Michelle Russo Michelle Russo
Chief Communications Officer, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


August 25, 2020


From Main Street shops to Wall Street boardrooms, the American business community is striving to become increasingly diverse, with a growing focus on inclusion, equality, and social responsibility, and with calls for greater gender and racial diversity across all sectors of the economy.

This week, as America prepares to celebrate Women’s Equality Day, which marks the adoption of our 19th Constitutional Amendment in 1920 granting women the right to vote, the U.S. Chamber is highlighting the progress women in business have made and the steps needed to create equal economic opportunities for all women. It is important to note that while the 19th Amendment represented an immense step forward for the women’s equality movement and years of hard work by suffragettes, some women, particularly women of color, still faced discrimination and obstacles to voting even after the legislation was passed. It took further steps and legislative activity to build toward this promise of equality put forward by the 19th Amendment.

This year’s Women’s Equality Day brings unique significance as it marks the 100-year anniversary of this landmark legislation. As we celebrate the barriers that have been broken and the progress brought by the 19th Amendment, we also recognize the steps that must still be taken to achieve greater equality for women, particularly women of color.

Looking at women-owned and minority-owned small businesses

Lessening a previous trend, female-owned businesses have closed a persistent gender gap in economic optimism, with 58% characterizing the economy as in good health, nearly the same as male small business owners (59%), according to a 2019 MetLife & U.S. Chamber of Commerce Small Business Index.

One report found that there are 9.1 million women-owned businesses across the U.S. that employ 7.9 million people. These businesses generate a total of$1.4 trillion in sales, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners.

The 2020 Q1 MetLife & U.S. Chamber of Commerce Small Business Index illustrates how the majority of small businesses deem diversity as an asset to business. Specifically, 65% of all small businesses in the MetLife and U.S. Chamber survey said that hiring ethnically and racially diverse candidates is beneficial for their business and 74% of minority-owned small businesses shared this sentiment. The data also shows the desire for more formal workplace training to support a diverse workforce, with 75% of minority-owned businesses and 62% of all small businesses feeling the need for this.

This growing focus on equality and diversity in the workplace has been shown to help businesses grow by bringing a variety of perspectives to the table. Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report revealed the need for new competencies required in company leadership, including an understanding of changing demographics and employee expectations. Deloitte polled various CEOs about their most important measure of success in 2019, and the study revealed that the top issue cited was “impact on society, including income equality, diversity, and the environment.”

Working toward more gender and racial diversity in the business community

The face of business has evolved over the years. In 1973, Katharine Graham became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, The Washington Post Company. Nearly a half century later, the number of women in business has continued to increase, with a focus on inclusivity and diversity in the workplace.

The latest Fortune 500 list reveals that 37 companies (7.4%) have female CEOs, an increase from 33 in 2019. Seven of the 37 women lead Fortune 100 companies. While the 2020 Fortune 500 list has the highest number of female CEOs in history, only three of the CEOs included on the list are women of color and there are no Black or Latina women represented, a decline from 2019. This data illustrates the lack of diversity among the percentage of female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list and highlights the work that still needs to be done to increase gender and racial diversity at the highest-levels of the business community.

Notably, some large companies have recently implemented accountability measures to ensure that companies going public work toward greater diversity. For example, in January 2020, Goldman Sachs announced that beginning July 1, 2020, it would no longer aid a company in going public in the U.S. or Europe unless it has a female or diverse board member. Next year, the company will further build on this rule by elevating its standard to two diverse directors and expanding the definition of diversity to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Prior to the implementation of these rules, over 60 companies in the U.S. and Europe had gone public without a board member that was a female or person of color over the previous two years.

What the U.S. Chamber’s doing to promote greater diversity and a more inclusive society

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce continues to emphasize the importance of equality, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace and advocates for substantive policies on behalf of these values.

In February 2019, the U.S. Chamber sent a letter to Congress supporting the Improving Corporate Governance Through Diversity Act of 2019. This legislation aims to expand gender and racial diversity among board of director leadership. Later that same year, the U.S. Chamber supported the Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity in the workplace and in commerce.

In June 2020, the U.S. Chamber launched its Equality of Opportunity Initiative, an effort to advance business and policy solutions designed to bridge opportunity gaps and ensure that Black Americans and people of color have greater opportunities to succeed. Further, on June 25, 2020, the U.S. Chamber hosted its first National Summit on Equality of Opportunity, where it convened leaders across the business community as well as the public sector, to discuss inequities for Black Americans and create a forum to work toward solutions. Through this initiative, the U.S. Chamber has built a policy agenda to address four areas that perpetuate broader inequalities in our society: Education, Employment, Entrepreneurship, and Criminal Justice.

In August 2020, the U.S. Chamber released its “MetLife & U.S. Chamber of Commerce Special Report on Race and Inequality on Main Street” which offered data on how minority-owned small businesses have been hit harder by the coronavirus. The highlights of the study reveal that minority owned businesses are slightly more likely to have tried and failed in securing a loan for their small businesses and that more minority-owned businesses expect to see revenue decreases. The data also notes a disparity in the outlook toward businesses reopening with 66% of minority-owned businesses being worried they will have to close permanently in contrast to the 57% for non-minority small businesses.

In January 2020, the U.S. Chamber applauded the Committee Approval of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) and took an active role in the development of the final version of the bill. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act establishes a pregnant worker's right to a reasonable accommodation. The coalition letter, which the U.S. Chamber authored with A Better Balance, National Partnership for Women & Families, National Women’s Law Center, and The American Civil Liberties Union in an effort to shape the provisions of the bill, said that the negotiated version of this bill would “ensure pregnant employees have the maximum opportunity to stay in the workplace, which is critical to the economic security of America’s women and families.”

Beyond policy, the U.S. Chamber has created spaces to promote female leaders and celebrate professional growth for women in their careers. This year the U.S. Chamber Foundation hosted its 10th annual International Women’s Day celebration event, titled “International Women’s Day Forum: Marking a Milestone, Continuing the Momentum,” which brought together women in leading roles throughout government and industry, including Birchbox Co-Founder and CEO Katia Beauchamp and Ureeka Co-Founder Melissa Bradley, among others. In addition, in 2019, the U.S. Chamber launched its Women Taking The Lead, a nationwide program to promote women leaders and create and strengthen a network of allies to champion their work and provide opportunities for professional growth and development.

Through these initiatives and many more, the U.S. Chamber strives to improve gender and racial equality throughout the U.S. business community. Women’s Equality Day should serve as a reminder of how far we have come in the struggle for gender equality, but it should also be a motivator to keep moving forward.

About the authors

Michelle Russo

Michelle Russo

Michelle Russo joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – the world’s largest advocacy organization for business – as its first CCO in April 2019. Representing companies of all sizes and across all sectors, the Chamber is the voice of American business in Washington D.C., across the country and around the world.

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