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What to Do About the "Boys' Club" in Business

Posted on August 10, 2017

Although women began pouring into the workforce more than 40 years ago, only a handful have made it all the way to the top of corporate America.

According to Take the Lead Women, a Vision 2020 Allied Organization, only 4.2 percent of C-suite positions at Fortune 500 companies are held by women; overall, women hold just 18 percent of top leadership positions across all sectors. Just last month, 2020 Women on Boards – another Vision 2020 Allied Organization – examined the 75 largest IPOs from 2014 to 2016 and found that three-fourths of the companies went public with one or no women on their boards; nearly half went public with no female directors at all.

If women represent more than half the population and 47 percent of the workforce, why are we so underrepresented in senior management roles and on corporate boards?

There are a number of factors contributing to the lack of gender diversity in business leadership. In this post, I will highlight the latest studies on where we are today, reflect on where we ought to be, and share ideas for how we can get there.

Where We Are, and Why

The ways in which girls and women, as well as their male counterparts, are socialized in American culture play a major role in how companies operate and who we are conditioned to see as a “leader” – an important contributor to the glass ceiling recently examined by The New York Times.

Following interviews with nearly two dozen female executives, writer Susan Chira summarized the barriers women continue to face in business as follows: “Women are often seen as dependable, less often as visionary. Women tend to be less comfortable with self-promotion — and more likely to be criticized when they do grab the spotlight. Men remain threatened by assertive women. Most women are not socialized to be unapologetically competitive. Some women get discouraged and drop out along the way. And many are disproportionately penalized for stumbles.”

The research backs up these barriers:

  • In Women in the Workplace 2016, Lean In and McKinsey & Company found that women who negotiated for promotions were 30 percent more likely than men to be labeled intimidating, bossy or aggressive.
  • Korn Ferry surveyed male and female senior executives and found that 43 percent thought continued bias against women as chief executives was the primary reason more women did not make it to the top in their own companies; 33 percent said women were not given sufficient opportunities to become leaders.

Where We Ought to Be, and Why

Vision 2020’s goal is to reach 50-50 shared leadership among women and men in senior management and board positions. Vision 2020 is a national coalition, and our role is to convene and connect organizations with complementary missions and to raise awareness of their work.

Ensuring that half the population is represented accurately among decision-makers is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business.

Catalyst, a program partner of Vision 2020, found a very strong correlation between corporate financial performance and gender diversity. In The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards, Catalyst reported that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors attained significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest representation of women board directors. Companies with more women board directors outperformed those with the least women by 53 percent for return on equity, by 42 percent for return on sales, and by 66 percent for return on invested capital.

Catalyst also found that the financial benefits of gender diversity were even stronger for companies with three or more women board directors – a finding that echoes Wellesley Centers for Women’s conclusion that “a critical mass of three or more women is needed for fully benefiting from women’s input.”

Why do companies do better when women are included in senior leadership? The research shows that, when women are at the table, boards’ discussions include the concerns of a wider set of stakeholders. Women are more persistent than male directors in pursuing answers to difficult questions, and women often bring a more collaborative approach to leadership that improves communication.

How We Can Get There

What needs to be done to accelerate the glacial pace of progress?

  • Find advocates in the boardroom. The Thirty Percent Coalition, a Vision 2020 Allied Organization, created its Adopt a Company Campaign in 2012 – a program it credits for having influenced 151 companies to appoint a woman, including women of color, to their boards. The coalition also has enlisted men and woman in its Champion of Change initiative, made up of individuals who have committed to actively advancing gender diversity in the boardroom and leading by example as public advocates. Similarly, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100x25 initiative aims for 100 female chief executives in the Fortune 500 by 2025.
  • Provide women with development opportunities throughout their career, and encourage female advancement throughout the corporate structure. This includes sponsorship and mentorship programs within the organization, as well as looking outside the company for learning opportunities (such as through Take the Lead Women’s 9 Leadership Power Tools course).
  • Enact workforce policies that support women. This includes childcare policies, flexible and telecommuting options, and strictly enforced antidiscrimination rules.
  • Stop perpetuating gender stereotypes. Each of us needs to recognize our gender-biased attitudes and behaviors that children grow up emulating (and thus repeating as adults). After all, gender equity begins at home.

Let’s keep the national conversation and momentum going!