Unintentional Gender Bias at the Top of the House: What’s the solution?

By: Bonnie Hagemann, CEO, Executive Development Associates, Inc.

I once wrote an article for the Human Talent Network called I Wish I Could but I Can’t on how women often hold themselves back from taking the top jobs in large companies.  I stated reasons like these:

  • They just don’t see themselves in the top seat.
  • They acquiesce easier than men do.
  • Women are more collaborative and not as internally driven to get the keys to the kingdom.
  • Women sometimes back off of pursuing top jobs because the cost to family life is too great.
  • They do not always choose to go after the top job because the competition can be fierce and many just opt out.

I still believe all of that, because I see it every day in my work with high level leaders, both men and women in the large publicly-traded and private companies. However, something happened recently that caused me to hold a competing belief and that is that gender discrimination is a bigger part of the equation than I realized.  Let me explain.

First, let’s look at the math as it stands today:

  • According to the US Department of Labor, women make up approximately 47% of the US workforce, a number which is projected to remain steady through 2020.
  • According to Fortune.com, in 2016 only 4.2% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women (June 6, 2016).
  • According to Catalyst, women hold 10.6% of the 6,081 board seats for the Fortune 500.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Are Women Better Leaders than Men? Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman researched over 7,000 leaders and the research determined that “…at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows.” (March 2012)

According to Catalyst, “Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors attain significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest representation of women board directors.” (Catalyst, The Bottom Line report)

Clearly, there is an argument for needing more women at the top of the house.

So here’s what happened that caused me to think about gender discrimination having more to do with the numbers than previously thought.  I attended a new program in Harvard’s Executive Education curriculum for Women on Boards.  This is designed to help women prepare for major board seats.  There were 67 women who attended from 17 countries.  These were not average women.  They were powerful leaders who ran large businesses and business units as well as held prestigious media and global political positions. All of these women were there to advance their ability to be on boards.  Every day we had long days of class, followed by the evening group meal and then a speaker. Once complete, we had “free time” to read approximately 90 pages of case studies which we would dive into in-depth the following day.  Free time was also sleep time, but who needs sleep when you’re trying to learn something?  Harvard brought in recruiters, business leaders, and faculty to help the class participants in their journey.  Who could ask for more?  The program was excellent, but one thing became very clear as the week progressed, the people who are choosing the candidates for the open board seats believe that there are not enough qualified women in the marketplace for the open positions.  They say that “they can’t find good candidates.”  As I heard this multiple times during our week together, I would look around the room and think “how can this be?”

In my work, I often work with boards to ensure that their CEO and C-Suite are well prepared in the area of leadership, and leadership is what I care about, not whether the leader is a man or a woman.  In fact, I’ve never rallied around women’s issues, because I primarily work with men, but this issue was catching my attention.  How is it that there are so many clearly qualified women and yet the perception is that there aren’t enough?  I know what the bios of the board members look like and these women are qualified in both experience and credentials.  It can’t be that they are hard to get along with, because we had 67 women in-residence working in big and small groups for 5 days, and we didn’t have any problem getting along.  It isn’t that they are not strong critical thinkers or articulate, because these women were both.  It isn’t that they don’t have the education, because many had Ivy League degrees.

I’ve thought about it a lot since the class. What is it that is causing the misconception?  I think perhaps, it’s this.  When the recruiter or board nominating committee starts looking, one of their criteria is that the board member has been the CEO of another publicly traded company. Which means that being the CEO is, by design, what qualifies a person to be on a publicly traded board.  And if we look at the Fortune 500, since only 4.2% of those jobs are held by women, we have a math problem. That would explain the idea that there are not enough “qualified” women for those seats.

I can’t think of any board member or recruiter that I’ve ever spoken with who would say out loud or possibly even believe that you have to have been a CEO to add value to a board, but nonetheless this concept is creating a Catch 22. Women are having trouble making it to the CEO job and that is impacting their ability to get on boards. So, what’s the solution?

Up until this point, I had spent very little time thinking about policies where organizations or governments are required to hire a certain percentage of a disadvantaged or under represented people groups, but the fact that women are so clearly underrepresented in the most senior leadership and governance positions of large companies gave me pause.  The more I thought about it, the more I settled into the belief that we may need a little help on this one.  After all, we have been unable to overcome the gender equality leadership discrepancies on our own in spite of the fact that many individuals and organizations have been trying to make an impact for years.  And, in fact, it may be that a quota will be necessary in order to achieve the needed balance.

However, there is hopefully a better option.  During one of our large-group discussions in the class someone from the United Kingdom mentioned that she was a member of the 30% Club. I did a little research during my 5 free minutes back in my room that evening and found out that the 30% Club originally launched in the U.K. in 2010 with a goal of achieving a minimum of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards.  It has since launched in the U.S. in June 2014 with a goal of having 30% female directors on S&P 100 boards by 2020.  There are some heavy hitters in the corporate world joining this club in order to advance the issue.  Personally, I’m not advocating for the 30% Club as an entity although it sounds promising, but I am advocating for the concept of individual leaders and corporate powerhouses joining forces to voluntarily get 30% female representation on boards and also in management. If leaders will opt-in to the idea and put some tangible goals and actions in place for their organizations and others where they have influence, the issue can be and should be resolved without the need for policy change. However, if leaders are unwilling or unable to advance the state of women’s equality in leadership then we do need the government to get involved and help advance the cause.

I still believe that women must personally do more to advance the state of equality by overcoming the reasons they often hold themselves back, but the issue is more complicated than I realized.  I believe it is more complicated than many of those making the choices realize as well because the leaders and board members I work with are not in any intentional or overt way trying to hold women back.  Complicated issues often require a multi-tiered strategy and that is the case for women’s equality in leadership. We are going to need to approach this from two, maybe three angles.

  1. Women must do more to advance the state of the industries in which they work.
  2. Board members and influential leaders must take a stand and begin to insist on a better representation of women in leadership positions.
  3. If we can’t get there on our own in a relatively short period of time, government needs to step in and help us bridge the gap.

After all, with the research indicating that having more women in leadership improves the performance of the company, it would be irresponsible governance if we don’t address the issue head on.

*This article was originally published on January 6, 2017 on HR.com: http://bit.ly/2jbsKr7

About the Author:

Bonnie Hagemann is the CEO of Executive Development Associates. She has over 15 years of experience successfully leading consulting firms through times of rapid growth and acquisitions as well as economic downturn and downsizing, in addition to 25 years of experience coaching, educating and developing leaders.

Bonnie has 33 published works including a book on the shifting workforce demographics and their impact on leadership entitled Decades of Differences. Her newest book, Leading with Vision: The Leader’s Blueprint for Creating a Compelling Vision and Engaging the Workforce, hits shelves in May 2017 (click here to pre-order your copy).

She leads research initiatives and publishes results in the areas of Trends in Executive Development, Executive Coaching, and High Potential Development.