We Need More Women CEOs

We Need More Women CEOs

Editor's Note: This post is in response to the following linked article from The New York Times

"More than 40 years after women began pouring into the workplace, only a handful have made it all the way to the top of corporate America. The percentage of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies who are women just passed 6 percent, creeping up (and occasionally dropping back) at a glacial pace."
-- "Why Women Aren't C.E.O.s, According To Women Who Almost Were" by Susan Chira, The New York Times

I have read so much about diversity and work for a company that prioritizes diversity. But we still as a country talk and talk, and the reality, the statistics in most major companies, Silicon Valley, and the hedge fund world, suggest progress is just way too slow. I don’t have the answer, and while this article gives some good insights, I get angry that progress is too slow.

I know there are plenty of women in lower and mid-level positions, but they seem to thin out in top management. Is it that they step off the fast track to raise a family, feeling like it’s an either/or decision? Or is it that they are not supported by male counterparts who see them as "pushy" or overly ambitious? Of course, characterizations that are rarely used to define men negatively in the work place. The article notes a study from Lean In and McKinsey & Company that found that women negotiate for promotions they are "30 percent more likely than men to be labeled intimidating, bossy or aggressive."

Ambition is a good thing, whether it is a man or a woman. I value ambitious people in the workplace. They tend to get the job done.

This article does give a few fresh insights, or at least for me. I learned things from Susan Chira's article, that should be obvious. For example, when playing in a golf event with male colleagues, one said, "I didn't know you played", to which she responded, "you never asked". Or a high performer, already in the C-suite, learned about the high politics that might be required to get across the CEO finish line. Or, finally, male colleagues were careful not to ask a female colleagues for drinks after work, for fear of the implication or insinuation between the sexes.

I work for a great company based in Europe, that values diversity and inclusion. While it has been a hot topic for a decade or more, and we focus on the "female pipeline", the percentage of women in the senior ranks remains stubbornly low. Not much higher than 10 years ago!

We have, like many firms, spent time on "unconscious bias", encouraging all employees to take such courses. We know that a diverse workforce is good for business. The pace of change in business is increasing with technology, markets, and risk quite different today than a decade or more in the past and women might just bring superior thinking to these areas and more.

For example, many have written about how men and women view financial risk. Would Wall Street have behaved differently in the Great Recession, if it had been dominated by female CEOs? What would that have meant to the U.S. economy and society for the last 10 years? I have come to believe that the excesses that led to the crisis and the aftermath would have been less devastating to our country, with more women in leadership.

So, we have to make it happen. It takes not only high achieving women, but men like me to advocate for women at all levels, and particularly at the top. I just read that Jamie Dimon said 30% of his executive leadership are women. Not 50% but better than most...and interesting that JPMorgan is considered among the best of breed on Wall Street (and my alma mater). That's encouraging progress and hopefully a model for other firms.

I believe strongly in capitalism, and shareholder self interest. If female leadership and diversity is good for business, then maybe we should look for activists who actually promote this agenda. Shareholders will take notice when they see results and help push for change. It’s so obvious that diversity is good, and the data is compelling.

In the article, I also got the impression that the author thinks that women might not be as clear with their superiors or even boards that they WANT to get the top job. Maybe there is a cultural bias that men are pushier, more demanding, challenging their managers to promote them vs women? In my own experience, and especially with millennials, I have seen more young men ask me for feedback and what they need to move up, than young women.

So, full confession....I have two daughters whose careers are just getting started. After a long and varied corporate career, working in Europe and the U.S., I feel an urge to give my daughters advice on how to succeed. Maybe my advice would be of some use, and maybe not? After all, I grew up in a mostly male dominated career in finance and I too, often failed to ask my female colleagues to play golf, and were sensitive about suggesting drinks. I also was probably guilty of seeing the few women who did move into senior ranks, as pushy and tough. I had a female boss briefly, but otherwise over a 30+ year career, it has been all men.

Nonetheless, here are a few pieces of advice for my daughters. First, it is a competitive world whether working in a for-profit or not-for-profit organization. Competition does not mean beating your colleague or making her or him look bad. It is about wanting to get the lead on the next project and show that you can not only handle it, but exceed expectations.

Second, I learned over my career, that you need to think through your career strategically. Most great careers, be they men's or women's, didn't happen by accident. They were planned, often at each stage. That also means find not only a mentor, who can give you advice along the way, but a sponsor, already a couple of levels above you, to sponsor your career helping you plan your moves.

Third, develop an edge. In our competitive environment, lots of people are talented and smart. Not as many have an edge. Edge is that extra instinct about what it takes to succeed, how to differentiate yourself from others, how to anticipate the next move, before the next person does.

Fourth and last, its leadership. This gets a lot of airtime these days. Who do you look up to in your organization that excels in leadership? Emulate them. Study the topic and learn all you can about leadership. If you want to be CEO or run an organization, you need to learn to be a leader. I think women make natural leaders.

My gut tells me that inevitably the number of women CEOs will increase in the coming years. I think it takes a few examples that will build a groundswell. Who would have thought a 20 something kid, could start a social media company worth $500 billion - and now everyone wants a Mark Zuckerberg to follow!

I would like to believe that this is inevitable. I think the answer lies in a combination of managed diversity with all the programs needed to promote it, but also strong, ambitious, competitive women, making it happen.

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