Coca-Cola hosted a special International Women’s Day event to celebrate the women who help make the company great and reaffirm its mission to achieve gender balance across the organization.

The March 8 event featured a panel discussion featuring Catalyst President and CEO Lorraine Hariton and Coca-Cola executives Lori George Billingsley, Nancy Quan and Brian Smith.

Panelists in front of the Uncovering Bias art exhibit

Billingsley, the company’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, kicked off the session by sharing how her upbringing fostered a mindset of inclusion and acceptance, stressing the value of having diverse voices in any conversation. Billingsley then spoke about Coke’s longstanding efforts to empower women around the world – both inside and outside its four walls.

“Our work on gender diversity is part of a larger mission to be as diverse and inclusive as our brands and to mirror the markets and communities we serve,” she said. “Being diverse and inclusive is not just the right thing to do; it is the right thing to do for our business and the right thing for everyone. We know that women are the fastest-growing economic force in the world.”

Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer Lori George Billingsley
Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer Lori George Billingsley

Hariton leads Catalyst, a nonprofit that works with top companies around the world to make their workplaces more inclusive for women. During her keynote remarks preceding the panel, she spoke of the organization’s history and purpose, and of her tenure with IBM in the late 1970s. There, an inclusive culture for women – undoubtedly ahead of its time – fostered in Hariton a passion to advocate for gender equality.

“Throughout my career,” she said, ”I have been lucky to have managers and mentors who have invested in me and have encouraged me to really learn and grow to be the person I am today.”

Lorraine Hariton, President and CEO of Catalyst
Lorraine Hariton, President and CEO of Catalyst, during her keynote address

She said companies with a higher degree of gender diversity at all levels financially outperform companies with less diversity. “I think that not only is it the right thing to help women, it is also the smart thing,” she added.

Unconscious bias – how the ways people think about gender and diversity, even without realizing it – can impede women’s empowerment and growth. She played a video from Catalyst that focused on specific words people use to describe women – such as “aggressive,” “bossy,” and “cold” – and how they are usually gender-specific and, unintentionally, negative.

Hariton joined a panel alongside Quan (SVP and Chief Technical Officer) and Smith (President and Chief Operating Officer). Billingsley moderated the wide-ranging discussion, which included a Q&A session with employees in the audience.

Here are a few highlights:

Panelists during the Q&A discussion
Panelists during the Q&A discussion

On Sponsorship…

Quan: “Sometimes it just takes one little conversation or nugget of hope that changes peoples’ perspective of what they can do to stretch and challenge themselves. I think there’s so much we can do as well, just as women, for other people and women within our areas of work.”

SVP and Chief Technical Officer Nancy Quan
SVP and Chief Technical Officer Nancy Quan

Hariton: “Sometimes the littlest thing makes a difference. Having this awareness and being intentional is really going to make a difference to create the future we all really want to have – which is to provide the opportunity for everyone to reach their full potential.”

On the importance of having men as allies…

Smith: “I think there’s a bias of men picking men. It’s a choice, and all things being equal it should be the other way around. I think if we become more aware of that, and we set ourselves that target, then we’ll get there.”

Hariton: “They really need to be part of the conversation and part of being able to make that intentional action to change. These conversations are not easy. It’s not easy to interrupt bias or to stand up for something that you see is not fair practice. Most especially to do it when it’s happening in the moment. People need to get comfortable with that and understand how to do it.”

The event wrapped with final thoughts from Billingsley: “No matter where we work and what we do,” she concluded, “we can all take action and celebrate women.“