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Offering a woman a leadership role is no longer enough

Creating Pathways for Women

Posted on October 8, 2020
Image of the upper body of a woman in a suit, but her face is not visible. She is holding a sign: Chief Executive Officer

According to the Wall Street Journal, less than 6% of CEOs are women. Sure, companies can check a box when they hire women in leadership roles, even though those roles are often “more female oriented” such as VP of Human Resources, but its time companies cultivate and foster female advancement. Jane Stevenson, vice chairwoman of the board and CEO at executive-recruitment at Korn Ferry said, “The women who do make it to CEO, they’re almost flukes because there’s not a consistent pipeline being built.”

What does it mean to build pipelines and foster the growth of women in corporate America? While opportunity plays a role, there is more to it than that. Leadership needs to create a culture where women are valued and provided space at the table at every level. More specifically, women are reviewed, mentored, and provided the same opportunities as their male counterparts. And being a mother can no longer be viewed as a burden or impediment to growth. In fact, mothers have proven over and over that they can juggle and be attentive, like their male counterparts. There needs to be a concerted effort. Michele Buck, CEO of Pennsylvania’s Hershey Co., and her executive team review five times a year the top 70 roles within the company. “They discuss what career-critical assignments the men and women in those positions, and the high-potential talent just below them, should take on next to move higher, including get the P&L experience.”

The approach Ms. Buck and her leadership take, however, is not common. According to a 2019 study by Working Mother Research Institute and the National Association for Female Executives, men and women receive “very different career-building cues.” Specifically, the men were three times as likely to be encouraged to consider profit and loss responsibility roles and they were two times as likely to be promoted into these roles over women. One does not need to assume that women are trained and encouraged to pursue career areas around people versus profit and loss leadership, we know men are pushed to pursue more technical aspects, such as math and finance. According to the Department of Education, as of 2017, less than 50% of finance majors are women and math and statistics are even lower, coming in at 41%. Instead, approximately 83% of the bachelor’s in Health Professions were women, about 80% in Public Administration, and approximately 80% in both Education and Psychology.

So, if women are not directed toward educational opportunities that will eventually lead them to profit and loss responsibility positions in school and they are not mentored to pursue such roles or promoted into paths that lead to those roles, then how does corporate America create a pipeline?

There are four key ways to develop a strong pipeline for women:

  1. Work with educational partners to create a channel for young women to pursue careers with profit and loss roles. This will make the CEO position more attainable. This might mean scholarships, internships, networking events, or other educational programming.
  2. Develop a comprehensive strategic plan to ensure women are trained, mentored, and provided opportunity to prepare for every typical pathway toward the CEO. And make sure these opportunities and pathways are visible and attainable.
  3. Highlight women’s achievements, to further demonstrate these pathways exist and create support networks for women to gain deeper insight, learn more about specific roles, and to network with one another.
  4. Be inclusive in all aspects. This means there should not be strategy sessions in the men’s locker room at the golf club or pick-up basketball games for the male senior leaders, which often leaves the one or two women executives out of the conversation. It also means include women of color!

We all know change is slow, but it is time for corporate America to stop offering a role here and there to women. Women comprise 51% of the population and more women graduate from four-year colleges than men. Now is the time for companies across this country to invest in women and provide pathways for success in whatever direction women want, and choose, to take, regardless of the destination. No longer, should women be steered away from careers in finance simply because those roles involve math and economics, and thus guided away from high-powered profit and loss leadership roles. No, instead young women should be mentored in college and graduate school to pursue these roles and then companies should cultivate and grow these talented women alongside their talented male counterparts, mentored, and elevated into senior leadership roles. Here’s to aiming for 51% of the CEOs are women!


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor, Goodwin College
Assistant Dean, The Graduate College
Posted in leadership-management-skills