More women in senior roles: If only companies really wanted it

Promoting women to C-Suite positions and nominating them to sit on boards are goals that are still, for the most part, a long way from being realized. As these authors underline, responsibility for stepping up to meet these goals starts at the top. Leaders will read about five principles that they can apply and that will accelerate the promotion of women to the C-Suite and the boardroom.

The advancement of women has been a focus of corporations for over 25 years, yet the ratio of women in top jobs has remained virtually unchanged in the past 10 years.  In fact, in some major organizations, early progress has given way to a stall or decline. This persistent absence of gender balance and other manifestations of diversity at senior levels in Canadian corporations is not a “women’s issue.” Rather, it is a competitive disadvantage. Moreover, it is one that should be of concern to all Canadians, whether they are aware of this imbalance or not.

The smooth curve of steady economic growth we have experienced for the last 80 years has changed. A graph of economic performance in the world now looks like a roller coaster and experts forecast that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. The lack of women in management represents a significant opportunity cost for Canadian companies, which must remain competitive in the face of this dynamic global marketplace.

Our desire for continued sustainability and growth will require companies to harness the energies of their entire talent pool, including women and men of all stripes.  This requires leadership. Research has revealed that the most successful companies are the most agile, i.e., those able to create both positive value and opportunity from what others call “uncertainty” or “surprises.” These companies accomplish this by encouraging and incorporating multiple and diverse points of view – not by relying on habitual thinking developed in some other context.   Management teams, who welcome diversity of thought, especially in times of change, create advantage for their companies.

Making this diversity of thought the “way we do business around here” requires a transformation, with cultural change at its root.  This is no small feat. Culture is deep, largely unspoken, historical and completely immovable unless addressed head on.  Historically, the cultural legacy of business is one of male leadership, something that made sense in another time, when the cultural dynamic for women was different and far fewer were engaged in the business of business.  But, today there are over 7 million women in the Canadian workforce, 72 million in the U.S. and proportionate levels of participation in all the developed countries of the worlds. In some cohorts women represent a larger percentage of the workforce than men.

Culture, and more specifically changing a culture, is an executive responsibility.  Although words “from the top” often say that women are welcome in more senior roles, the “walk” or reality is heavily influenced by expectations from another century, that continue to shape senior management.

In the following article, we discuss how companies inadvertently handicap themselves by failing to tap into the entire available talent pool. As well, we provide insight into the cultural barriers to change and offer five critical principles that leaders can apply to help achieve a true gender balance.

What has been going on all these years?

In our view, actions in the recent past have focused on counting women rather than taking full advantage of the talent pool and building a meaningful pipeline.

There has been a recent spate of articles about women in business – or more to the point, about women not in the business of leading business. It is well documented that senior management roles and board positions continue to go to men across all industries.

Although women comprise 48 percent of the workforce and over 50 percent of university graduates, their presence falls off the ladder rather quickly as roles become more senior. Specifically, only 36.5 percent of lower level managers are women; less than 18 percent are top executives; less than 14 percent are on boards, and a mere 6 percent are CEOs of North American companies. The number of board positions that have gone to women in the past 3 years has increased by a rousing 0.2 percent. As Catalyst, a 50-year-old organization focused on promoting gender diversity and the advancement of women points out, if this rate of change in senior management and board roles continues, we will have parity by the end of this century!

On the one hand, the data clearly prove that, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, women have not progressed in the last while. So, there is no need to waste our time on circular and useless arguments about “level playing fields” and “equal opportunities for women.”  On the other hand, however, this trend is very disturbing and reflects an almost stereotypical resistance to change.  For the last 20 years, corporate leaders and boards have been busy “counting women” and “gathering proof” instead of opening their senior teams to input from diverse sources. Our recent dialogue and experience with a number of organizations, including pharmaceutical, technology, banking, accounting and consulting organizations, reveal that this remains true.  If innovation and growth are the true goals, stalling tactics such as counting can be considered dangerous. In fact, this endless dialogue about the business value of increasing the participation and advancement of women in our organizations at all levels is itself a significant barrier to advancement. In fact, as Ivey professor Alison Konrad has discovered in her research, the attitudes towards women held by men graduating from business school today are the same as they were 30 years ago, as are the differences in pay,, even among MBA’s.

Opportunity lost 

In economic terms, this lack of openness and the absence of transparent dialogue represent a significant opportunity cost. By focusing on the “way we have always run this company” boards and executives reinforce mediocrity and leave significant performance potential on the table. This is simply because diversity is a moneymaker. The profitability of companies with gender-balanced senior teams outperforms the industry average by over 34 percent, according to McKinsey. Catalyst has uncovered similar findings, as have many others.

In knowledge-based industries in particular, cultures with collaborative and inclusive leadership styles have been credited with consistently superior performance and increased innovation. That women excel at this leadership style is well documented and undisputed. Further, at present more women than men are graduating from university, and thus the talent pool of competent women is richer than ever. The pool of talent potentially excluded is also larger than ever.

Investment firms are becoming aware of the opportunity cost and embedded risk in companies whose senior management and boards are not diverse.  Canterbury Investments in California regularly publishes a list of companies governed by all-male boards. It asks shareholders to write to the companies in which they invest to voice their concern about the potential blind spots in such homogenous boards. Investors are the last people who want to leave profit on the table, yet their lack of awareness of this issue and its implications have allowed this imbalance to prevail unabated.

So, what’s the problem?

We had thought that we were done with this issue. Like most of our friends and colleagues, we were blissfully unaware that women remained blocked in being promoted to senior roles. In 1995, a Canadian bank ran a program for gender awareness in its investment and corporate banking groups. While the bank strove for gender-balanced workshops, they ran out of senior women after the first two sessions, so it had to improvise pretty quickly because there were still over 100 senior managers/VPs left to engage. Given the current statistics on the gender imbalance at senior and board levels, it is shocking to realize that the same challenge would exist today!

As with any complex, systemic problem, the contributing factors are many and varied. Does lack of opportunity for women in senior roles stem from an underlying and unspoken corporate bias, particularly at the executive and board level? The answer is “Yes.” Is it because women opt out? Yes. Is it because promotional practices and other formal and informal “systems” blatantly favour men? Yes. Is it because women don’t ask for what they want and expect less? Yes. Is it because women typically advance through staff versus operational roles and/or are not given developmental opportunities in operational roles? Yes. Is it because no one is accountable for change at the senior level? Yes.  Is this bias evident in both male and female executives and board members?  Yes – all of the above and a bit more. (Each of these statements is supported by independent and documented research by McKinsey on the case for diversity, Alison Konrad on Women in Leadership; Development Dimensions International Inc. on Holding Women Back; and Resonance Insights, with primary research on culture and underlying beliefs, to name just a few organizations that have researched the subject).

Culture and transparency 

Solving this problem is also about cultural change and becoming transparent, goals that are not only time consuming but that also require strong leadership and tenacity.  Cultural change is no small feat. Culture is deep, largely unspoken, historical and completely immovable unless it is addressed head on.  As Malcolm Gladwell so aptly put it in Outliers – The Story of Success:

“Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep and long lives. They persist generation after generation virtually intact, even as the economic, social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished…”

The cultural legacy of business is, in part, one of male leadership. In another time, perhaps this made sense. At one time, raising children and running a house without electricity or plumbing was a daunting and time consuming task. Women just didn’t have time to be JP Morgan or Nelson Rockefeller. In those days, very few women were either educated or even in the work force. Today, where two-income families are often a necessity in order to meet daily needs, there are 7 million Canadian women and 72 million American women in their respective workforces. Yet a mere 735 women are Fortune 100 senior executives.

The main reason that there are few women at the top is because the cultural legacies have not been challenged, but rather honoured. As an example, the lack of transparency in executive-level promotion and recruitment policies has enabled the tacit assumptions of an inherited culture to continue to drive decision-making and choice. Examples such as this are abundant.  For example, 67 percent of senior women are in non-operational (i.e., staff) roles; and even in companies where women are more than 80 percent of the workforce, men account for more than 50 percent of the high potentials.

Our Solution – Five Critical Principles

Cracking this cultural inertia can bring a significant advantage. The critical success factor for initiating and driving this change is leadership. Specifically, it is leadership that does not relegate the task of cultural change to the human resources department or pursue inconsequential tactics to buy time, but rather enacts the change it wants to see. Success will come from “being” a leader that both values and leverages diversity of thought to meet the challenges of a dynamic marketplace. In short, a role model for the future.

We offer five principles that a concerned leader, of either gender, can follow, principles that will produce meaningful, lasting change.

  1. Change starts with you. Although your role is to take the company into the future, you are a product of the past. In fact, individual decision-making processes were locked in by the time you were thirty years of age. Know this about yourself and know also that your ability to create a viable and sustainable future in this dynamic economy is directly related to your ability to open your mind and thinking to new information and perspectives.
  2. Don’t let culture eat your strategy: Embedded and unspoken organizational biases can easily derail change efforts. What are the perceptions, fears and aspirations in the current culture? Where is the most resistance and why? What are you going to do about them? With the advances in neuroscience and the understanding of emotional intelligence, unspoken cultural biases can be easily and precisely identified. The resulting insights can enable you and your leadership team to spot strengths, and opportunities and/or obstacles in your current culture that can be leveraged to create an agile corporation and make senior ranks more diverse. If properly understood, directed and consciously managed by leaders, culture can drive and help you meet strategic objectives.
  3. Understand that transparency is your most powerful tool: To impact the culture and create lasting change, learning and change at all three levels are essential. Be clear and open about your strategy – what you want and where you are going. Make promotional processes and developmental opportunities fully transparent. What does it take to get on the senior team? Or the high-potential list? What criteria are required to become eligible for a promotion and why? How can I be selected for developmental opportunities – especially operational ones?
  4. “Be” rather than “Do”: Hold the senior team accountable for more than tactics and building buy-in. All management teams will ultimately be impacted, however, creating a culture that seeks and appreciates that diversity starts – rather than ends – with the most senior team. The one thing all leaders have in common is that they consistently underestimate the impact they have on those around them. What you say and do are watched and followed constantly by those whose work your role affects. Thus your clarity of direction and enthusiasm for leveraging all talent will be both closely observed and infectious, or easily undone by inconsistency or bad behaviour.

    To the board: Set goals and raise expectations; this is the board’s role. And you cannot stop there.  “Be” that role model yourselves. Open the board to non-traditional candidates. There are strong and capable candidates but, as many search firms report, you are not considering or even seeking these candidates. Expect openness from senior management by being open yourselves.

  5. Enable and strengthen women and make them aware of the challenge: In the current cultural environment, the playing field is not level. Thus, women need more confidence and must be more capable than men to achieve the same goals. Conferences, networks and mentors represent a starting point, but they are clearly ineffective on their own. Instead, help women to be systematic and deliberate about activating their potential and overcoming the subtle, unspoken blocks they encounter as they seek or take on more senior roles.

    In addition to confidence and capability, women also need opportunity. Many senior women we interviewed have struggled in the past due to lack of sponsorship of someone at the executive table, i.e., someone who is prepared to put them forward, particularly for developmental projects and assignments in operational roles.  You can be that leader who consciously places women in developmental roles; expect the same from your direct reports.

    And to women – expect more. Expect equal pay; expect and seek out stretch assignments; ask for what you want. This is what men do and as history has repeatedly proved, it works very well.

    Finally, men need to be actively engaged in these strategies to improve transparency, and help surface and correct years of systemic bias.

What’s next?

Einstein said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.” After more than 20 years of trying and not doing, it clearly is time for boards and leaders to recognize and take action to engage a more diverse talent pool and in doing so, form the foundation for success over the long run. The ultimate winners will be the countries and companies who identify and leverage all of the talent, innovation and ideas available to them.

About the Author

Gerry Purcell is a consultant, leader and visionary who has managed and advised organizations in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors around the world for more than 20 years.

About the Author

Shirley Knight is an independent consultant with more than 30 years' experience in banking and insurance and specializing in strategic planning, leadership and organizational development.….
Read Shirley Knight's full bio

About the Author

Shirley Knight is an independent consultant with more than 30 years' experience in banking and insurance and specializing in strategic planning, leadership and organizational development.….
Read Shirley Knight's full bio