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Women’s Leadership Board member Lara Warner on the value of closing gender gaps

By Mari Megias
Photo by Kristen Schueler

About eight years ago, Lara Warner was at a meeting of the Women’s Leadership Board (WLB) at Harvard Kennedy School when she received a call from Credit Suisse’s investment bank. “It was the CEO, who said, ‘Lara, your name came up to be CFO of our investment bank. Are you interested?”

Warner, who was then leading Credit Suisse’s Global Fixed Income Research division, had previous experience as a CFO during her years at AT&T, but had not been focusing on overall financial performance at Credit Suisse. She immediately asked herself three questions: “1) Are they serious? 2) Are they just asking me this so they can have a female candidate? and 3) Can I do this job?” She made some calls and learned that she was being considered because of her work, not her gender—and she ended up getting the job.

As a senior business executive, Warner continues to succeed in a world where male executives outnumber females by three to one. She is, in fact, the only member of her company’s C-suite who is a woman. In her role as Credit Suisse’s chief compliance and regulatory officer, she works in a field driven by data. So it’s no surprise that she is a strong advocate for the work of Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP), which researches tangible ways to close gender gaps then provides evidence-based solutions to the policy- and decisionmakers who take action to level the playing field. The 140-plus members of the WLB, now in its 20th year, provide crucial financial support to help WAPPP advance its mission.

A decade ago, a colleague in the industry suggested she join the WLB because, as Warner puts it, “We wanted our approach to diversity at the bank to be more strategic. Our desire was to make the business case for equity, as opposed to simply the moral argument.” Now, Warner chairs the WLB. “It’s unlike any other organization I’ve been a part of,” she says. “These are some of the most accomplished women in the world, and they gather in Cambridge biannually to engage on issues of diversity and gender equality.” She notes that the women on the WLB have strong track records of advocating for equity. “They have a unique set of experiences: they are very involved in NGOs, politics, and foundations—quite a broad swath of experienced women who work all over the world. It’s rare to convene this number of women in a room together who have such energy and passion for making a difference.”

Lara Warner and Raafi Alidina MPP 2017
Lara Warner and Raafi Alidina MPP 2017

Professor Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist who combines insights from economics and psychology to improve decision-making, is WAPPP’s faculty director. She says the Kennedy School’s efforts are singular among universities and think tanks. “We are the first center to focus on ‘de-biasing’ organizational procedures rather than mindsets based on insights from behavioral economics. Thus the concentration on how behavioral science and gender intersect.” Bohnet’s 2016 book, What Works: Gender Equality by Design, has become a seminal guide for employers intent on overcoming workplace bias.

Many companies and governments are putting WAPPP’s research insights to work. For example, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, whose Commission on the Status of Women was chaired by Victoria Budson MC/MPA 2002, executive director of WAPPP, led efforts to pass the Act to Establish Pay Equity, which received unanimous bipartisan support and was signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker last summer. Inspired by HKS Senior Lecturer and WAPPP Research Director Hannah Riley Bowles’ work on gender and negotiation, the law makes it illegal to ask potential employees about their salary history and prohibits retaliation against employees who share their salary with others.

Warner’s enthusiasm for the work of Bohnet and others led her to establish, in 2015, a permanent endowment to help support research into closing gender gaps. She also funded the Lara Warner Scholars Program, which provides financial aid to students who focus on creating a more equal world (see sidebar). “I feel strongly about impact,” says Warner. “I’ve spent time in a profession that relies heavily on strong research and analytics to make decisions, so I’m very supportive of WAPPP’s approach.”

According to Budson, people want to do the right thing but just need the tools to do so. “It’s not that people don’t want to close gender gaps,” she says. “It’s just that they don’t know how.”

“Diversity is a reality, inclusion is a choice”

Diverse companies are more productive and make more money, but diversity without inclusion doesn’t get you these benefits,” says Raafi Alidina MPP 2017, a Lara Warner Scholar who focuses on the intersection of diversity and inclusion. “Diversity is about the numbers of people at the table and how their different backgrounds come together. But being at the table is one thing, being heard—i.e., inclusion—is another.”

Bohnet advised him on his Policy Analysis Exercise, which received the 2017 Jane Mansbridge Research Award during Class Day. He partnered with former WAPPP fellow Stephen Frost MPP 2004 at the organization he founded, Frost Included, to develop a metric that evaluated whether people at a large philanthropic foundation felt included. “I developed a diagnostic, ran it on employees, and created some targeted interventions,” he says. “I recommended interventions based on the context. For instance, we could anonymize resumes to ensure that irrelevant personal characteristics were not being taken into account in hiring.” He also recommended that photos of counterstereotypical high achievers be hung in the workplace to reduce “stereotype threat,” that is, a phenomenon where situational factors lead people to confirm negative stereotypes about the social group that they belong to.

Alidina is tremendously grateful to Lara Warner for providing the resources he needed to finish his degree. “Without her funding, I wouldn’t be graduating, I wouldn’t have been able to do the research I do. I will never be able to express how much the people of WAPPP have done to support me.”