According to a white paper by growth and performance consultancy Feigen Advisors, 4% of the CEOs at S&P 500 companies are women, only slightly up from 3% in 2006. In addition, key contributors to the CEO gender imbalance include a diminishing pipeline of women as careers progress toward the senior executive level.
Although the public resoundingly holds men and women to be equally capable of being effective CEOs, there are notable differences in the way men and women perceive barriers to advancement for women. And despite years of significant investment in mentorship programs for women executives, a recent pattern of criticism now views mentorship programs to be far less effective than meaningful forms of sponsorship, where an influential senior leader actively advocates for his or her protégé’s career advancement.
Dismantling the Old Boys Club
In her recently published book, Earning IT, Wall Street Journal news editor Joann Lublin writes that “It is all well and good to be told to Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, but in reality, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that women continue to face barriers to career advancement, and statistics show that more than 75% of millennial women identify gender bias as a workplace problem.”
Drawing upon interviews with over 50 present and former female CEOs of public companies such as HP, Hearst, Avon, Sara Lee, Campbell Soup and GM, Lublin observes that these trailblazers dismantled the old boys club, destroyed myths about capabilities of female leaders and exhibited examples of personal courage that serve as examples for younger women who aspire to be leaders. “Their lessons are neither sugarcoated bromides nor shrill calls to demand your rights at all costs,” Lublin adds.
According to many women leaders Lublin interviewed, the scourge of sexual harassment has changed very little in the contemporary workplace. The experiences of Carly Fiorina at AT&T, Brenda Barnes at Pepsi-Cola North America and Linda Hudson at BAE Systems are detailed at length along with tactics some women leaders use to neutralize unwelcome attention. “Pick your battles and don’t overreact,” advises Carol Bartz, who ran Autodesk and Yahoo.
Lublin also points to numerous companies that have taken positive steps to eliminate gender bias—even unconscious bias—in performance assessment. At companies such as Microsoft, Intel and VMware, for example, male executives are assessed at how different standards creep into their thinking when seeking to promote middle level executives.
Guided by current research, here are 3 measures companies can take now to ensure the problem does not continue into the next generation of leaders.
- Companies should begin preparing their most promising candidates for elevation to the CEO role earlier than many do now. They should develop a pool of 5-10 highly qualified, well-rounded leaders from both genders, exposing each to a wide range of developmental challenges over the next decade.
- Boards must actively monitor the advancement of qualified executives, focusing not only on performance and quality, but on diversity as well. Directors of companies with no women among their top five highest paid executives—more than half of the current S&P 250—should approach the issue with a sense of urgency, learning from peer companies with a more balanced leadership.
- Companies should set a goal of having women hold at least 25 percent of executive level positions. This is the pool from which future CEOs will be drawn. With an average CEO tenure of nine years, nearly all companies in the S&P 250 will appoint new CEOs over the next decade, making the elevation of more women into the ranks of CEOs more likely.
Despite the barriers, American women have scored a rich history of firsts. While some inherited their positions, including Anna Bissell, America’s first ever woman CEO, and Katharine Graham, America’s first female Fortune 500 CEO, others carved their own paths into leadership, including Ursula Burns, America’s first African-American female Fortune 500 CEO.
And the trend continues. Recently Celebrity Cruises, a luxury cruise line owned by Royal Caribbean named its first female CEO, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo along with its first female ship captain Kate McCue, the first woman to captain any mega ship.