Founder and CEO of The Female Quotient addresses gender inequality head-on

After graduating from Barnard College, an all-women’s private college, Shelley Zalis joined corporate America, but it was long before she realized her true calling: entrepreneurship. Before founding The Female Quotient, she founded OTX, which became one of the largest and fastest growing research companies in the world. Now, Shelley is working to advance gender equality across all industries.

As CEO of The Female Quotient, she hopes to rewrite the rules and use her expertise and experience to activate long-lasting solutions, create metrics for accountability, and ultimately, transform workplace culture. In addition to being a business owner and CEO, Shelley is a mother, mentor, and as she likes to call herself, “chief troublemaker.”

Interviewing Shelley about her work with The FQ Lounge, I am inspired. Shelley shares the impact of The Female Quotient, how to measure the equality health of a company, and what she hopes for the future of the workplace.

You created The Girls’ Lounge, now The FQ Lounge, a sort of pop-up area at conferences, companies, and college campuses for women to connect. Can you tell us the origin story for The Girls’ Lounge?

I went to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) for the first time in 2013, which was male dominated. I didn’t want to go alone, so I brought my girlfriends with me and asked them to invite their friends so I felt more comfortable. We had about 50 women walking the floor of CES together, and that’s when I experienced the power of the pack. It felt so powerful to have this group of smart women surrounding me. I realized the importance of bringing my feminine side to the business world. It showed me that the minority can feel and act like the majority. Those were the heartbeat moments that shaped what the Girls’ Lounge became.

Today, we’ve evolved from The Girls’ Lounge to The FQ Lounge, because women are 50% of the population and transformation must include men. Women still feel and act like the majority, but men are more than welcome to join. More progress will be made when we understand and integrate into our hearts and minds the reality that equality is not a woman’s issue or a man’s issue; it’s everyone’s issue because equality benefits us all. The FQ Lounge is the home of equality; the place where we all belong.

How did you decide to expand The FQ Lounge into The Female Quotient?

It all started with the Girls’ Lounge, now The FQ Lounge, a safe and authentic space for women to be themselves and have unplugged conversations. But then we realized we also needed to create change in the workplace. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, at the rate we’re going, it will take 108 years to reach gender parity in the C-suite — unless we create change now. We launched The Female Quotient to create next-step solutions for change and measures for accountability.

You were one of the leading female executives in the corporate research field. How did your experience there help prepare you for your work at The Female Quotient?

Throughout my career, I was the only female CEO in the top 25 global research CEOs. I was well known as the “Chief Troublemaker” because I broke the rules that I felt made no sense. I created “un-corporate rules” in the company I founded, Online Testing Exchange (OTX), and I created a lifestyle company before anyone was even using the term lifestyle. I sold OTX in 2010 to Ipsos, the third-largest research company in the world.

My “aha moment,” or as I like to say, my “heartbeat moment,” was when I realized that I brought different qualities of leadership to the table. I was nurturing, empathetic, and passionate. These traditionally feminine strengths are what helped me be successful, allowing me to run my company like a family. I believe that emotion and passion belong in the boardroom. The Female Quotient is much bigger than me, but it reflects my personal mission to help women own their strengths and advance equality in the workplace.

At FQ Lounge events, you don’t hand out name tags to attendees. Why is that?

We don’t want women to talk to each other based on title or where they work; we simply want them to discover and meet other great women. After all, we all learn from each other, regardless of title or company. All of our invitations are sent out from a collective group of women, first names only, and close with “given with love from the girls at [insert company name].” That’s because companies don’t make things happen, people do. Our people just happen to be badass women — and men.

You’ve talked about “creating measurements for accountability” for organizations that want to improve their diversity. What kind of metrics do you use to hold these companies accountable?

The Female Quotient uses four key vitals to measure the equality health of a company, which are outlined in the Modern Guide to Equality, a living and breathing playbook to rewrite the rules for today’s workplace in order for companies to evolve. They are:

  1. Parity, which includes closing the wage gap and ensuring that all employees have equal opportunities, such as by adjusting strategies for hiring and retaining female and diverse talent.
  2. Advancement, such as by creating access to mentors and sponsors, as well as offering returnships.
  3. Leadership, with an emphasis on values of inclusivity, communicating those values and having accountability around equality and diversity initiatives. Also, there needs to be coaching where we are not trying to “fix the women,” as well as coaching for men.
  4. Culture, and how to rewrite the rules for a new workplace culture that goes beyond textbook training.

Also, I’m a co-founder of the #SeeHer movement. Our mission is to accurately portray all women and girls in the media and advertising so that by 2020, women and girls see themselves reflected as they truly are. We’re seeing progress with the Gender Equality Metric (GEM) becoming an industry standard. The GEM score is a measurement for accountability that allows us all to be better so long as we choose to be better. #SeeHer includes more than 90 national marketers and supporters who have committed to being better together — representing more than 1,000 brands and a combined $50 billion in US ad spend.