Promoting Women to the Executive Suite

Promoting Women to the Executive Suite ~ January, 2009

If your company already has women in executive and board positions, you’re a step ahead in attracting other talented women leaders. Talented women attract other talented women – and every company needs a full deck of talent to succeed.

Numerous studies show that companies with more women on their boards outperform those with fewer women. And countless companies find that having women in top, key positions provides insight into customer needs, enhancing products and increasing revenue. There is an impending shortage of executive talent in the years ahead, and companies whose strategies include recruiting and retaining women will win a serious competitive advantage.

There are things you can do to find, develop, and keep talented senior women executives. The first step is understanding the current environment and where you are in it; the second is asking advice from women executives who live in the executive suite and actively promote other talented women. We look at both aspects in this article.

We’re not there yet

A 2007 study by Catalyst found that women hold more than 50 percent of managerial and professional positions in the labor force, but less than 16 percent of Fortune 500 corporate positions and less than 15 percent of board seats. Over the four-year span of this study, Fortune companies with the highest percentage of women on their boards reported equity returns 53 percent higher than companies with the fewest number of women on boards. These same companies’ returns on sales and invested capital were 42 percent and 66 percent higher, respectively.[1]

Some studies show that women are actually losing ground in holding positions at the vice-presidential level and above. Women’s share of executive positions, from vice president to CEO, dropped just over 13 percentage points between 1990 and 2000.[2] And when women do make it to the C level, they usually face higher standards and less pay.

Many, but not enough, top U.S. corporations realize that they benefit financially when women hold a share of executive positions. A succession management process at Eli Lilly, for example, identifies “the next most ready” women and minorities as candidates. Goldman Sachs targets women returning to work. Cigna’s mission is to promote more women to top positions and the company spends $2 million a year to recruit and develop executive women.

What is it about women?

Women are motivated at work by connection, relationships, and delivering quality products and services. Executive-level men say their primary interests are power, career advancement and financial rewards. According to research cited by Sylvia Ann Hewlett on workforce.com, career advancement and financial rewards weren’t even among the top four drivers of women.

So what is it that talented women really want from their work? Ms. Hewlett cites the top few values: associating with people they respect; being themselves; collaborating with others as part of a team; giving back to society through their work; and recognition by the company. Women tend to search for something beyond salary and career advancement in their jobs and this sets them apart from their male counterparts.

These differences in values and priorities create a gap in understanding and a barrier to women in sharing the executive suite. Aspiring women and their organizations both lose in the current environment.

Change the stereotypes, not the style

Recent research shows that female business leaders are still plagued by gender stereotyping. Because women’s values are different than men’s, women are seen as atypical leaders, with the connotation “not as good.” If women “act” like women, they are seen as too soft. If they deviate from gender stereotypes, they are seen as too aggressive. We’ve heard the same tired stereotypes for years. Similarly, women who energetically promote their own interests are seen as aggressive and selfish, and when women fail to promote themselves, they don’t become leaders.

One such stereotype, a particularly harmful one, is that young women will leave work during their childbearing years and for this reason, they aren’t viewed as executive material. The reality is that less than 8 percent of professional women born since 1956 have left their jobs for a year or more during prime childbearing years.[3] Enlightened companies offer flexible work schedules to women – and men – trying to achieve work/life balance during short periods at this time in their lives.

In reality, multiple research studies year after year show that women and men have similar leadership styles. It’s not women’s styles that need to change, it’s the stereotyping. Stereotypes lead organizations to underestimate and underuse talented women leaders.

Promoting women means better performance

Formal and focused mentoring, sponsorship and professional development programs for women are key initiatives that every company should have at their core. The most successful of these programs seem to be organic and initiated by women for women.

In looking for mentors and sponsors within their companies, women often find that prospective role models have neither the influence nor power to help them advance to coveted executive positions. So, what’s to be done?

According to Colleen Abdoulah, President and CEO of WOW! Cable, women and men need to work together to promote women. The male power base is hesitant to promote women, she believes, because of three factors: they are uncomfortable around women; threatened by women; and don’t see the value of women executives. “If they understand the value, they’ll get over the other two.”

“Women need to get out from under their own glass ceiling”, says Stephanie Allen, founder and Chair Emeritus of the AthenA Group emphasizes. Women don’t need to be superstars to show men that “they are not that much different than me.” Women should look for male allies who can champion them and, very important, learn to support those men in return. She believes things are changing. The glass ceiling isn’t as evident in middle management today, and women under 40 aren’t aware of it until they try to reach the top. “Then they don’t know what hit them when they run into it.”

As Madeleine Albright puts it, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” It’s up to women, working together with men, to create environments where women look around and see opportunity and reward. After all, promoting women to the executive suite promotes better performance. Everyone can relate to that.

[1] Frauenheim, Ed,”Bias Study Sees Few Gains for Female Leaders,” Workforce.com. (August 21, 2007) (January 9, 2009).

[2] Tahmincioglu, Eve, “When Women Rise,” Workforce Management, September 2004, (January 9, 2009).

[3] Marquez, Jessica, “Study Disputes Opt-Out Trend for Women,” American Sociological Review, June, 2008. (January 9, 2009).

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