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Where Are the Women Executives?

Where Are the Women Executives?
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FleishmanHillard TRUE sat down with Betty Spence, the president of the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE), to ask a question that perplexes even diversity experts: After a couple of decades in which companies claim to be looking for women executives for their C-suites and as directors, why aren’t there more women in top corporate leadership roles? Spence, NAFE president since 2001 and creator of the “NAFE Top Companies for Executive Women” list (known as the NAFE 50), offers a few possible reasons – and suggestions on how to fix the problem.

TRUE: NAFE just released its latest NAFE 50, and among these companies that are supposed to be the best for female executives, only 10 percent have women CEOs. While that percentage is double the 5 percent of the S&P 500, the absolute number is only 5 versus around 25 of the S&P. Why, after all these years of women recruitment, are the numbers still so relatively low?

Spence: I would definitely agree with you that it’s quite shocking that the numbers are still so low even at the very best companies for women. It’s not an easy fix, and maybe that’s what it boils down to, because I believe many of these companies would fix it if they could.

NAFE's Betty Spence, Ph.D.

NAFE’s Betty Spence, Ph.D.

TRUE: Is the problem that myths about women in the workplace still govern senior executive thinking?

Spence: That’s definitely part of the problem. Myths continue to prevail. For instance, we organized a roundtable the other day in which we asked top women executives from one of our NAFE companies to come with a male executive who was either their boss or at least senior to them. We asked the women questions and the men listened. The women were asked questions like, “Have you ever been passed over for a job that you knew you were really qualified for and a man got it instead?” The answer from practically all of them was yes.

One of the women said that she had been passed over because she was a mother and for some reason people at her company assumed she wouldn’t be ready for a promotion until her children were in college. The men were surprised to hear that. They said they didn’t think that was still happening.

Other women talked about how they expected to be recognized for their work and weren’t. Many told stories about how they just hadn’t raised their hands for a job they wanted because they thought their boss would know that they were ready. This was news to the men, that maybe women wanted promotions but weren’t pushing themselves forward for them.

TRUE: What does this tell companies about women in the workplace?

Spence: Well, I think there has to be a lot more listening going on if companies really want to take advantage of the talented women they have and asking women candidates whether they want to be considered. The problem often develops in the middle management, where women have trouble getting over the hump to move into senior management.

In this session, women also talked about how they felt they needed to know 80 or 90 percent of a job before they were qualified for it, where men feel like they only need to know 20 percent and assume they will learn the rest on the job. This tells us that men are much more confident in the workplace and assume they are qualified; women feel the need to prove it. It’s a fairly well-known reality that men are advanced on potential, and women are advanced on what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished. That usually means women will be moving up at a later age and will have less time to keep advancing.

This tells us that men are much more confident in the workplace and assume they are qualified; women feel the need to prove it.

TRUE: How can companies that sincerely want a larger percentage of women in their senior management deal with these problems?

Spence: One thing we recommend for companies is to engage in unconscious bias training so managers can really understand what factors they may be unconsciously putting into the equation that are working against women. For instance, whether or not she has children. That rarely is even considered in the case of male candidates.

We’re also encouraging them to start sponsorship programs. This goes beyond mentoring, which many companies offer their promising male and female executives. Mentors advise and sponsors advocate.

A lot of the studies that have been coming out in the last two or three years show that while men and women have been getting basically the same amount of mentoring, men continue to advance faster. Why? There was one major difference that researchers started to see: The mentors of male candidates were talking about them when they weren’t in the room, and the mentors of female candidates were not. They were telling their fellow senior executives that they should be considering Jim for this job, but they weren’t telling them they should consider Patty.

There was an elephant in the room when it came to women candidates who most often had male mentors. The men were thinking, “What will people think if I’m talking up this woman?” Men don’t sponsor women for many reasons, but sometimes the simple one is because they’re afraid that people might misinterpret their interest and insinuate that something else was going on between the two.

To overcome this problem, companies are starting formal sponsorship programs where the role of a senior executive is to not only mentor but also to advocate for candidates. That has removed the fear of innuendo. It becomes part of the culture of the organization, and when everybody’s doing it, nobody thinks anything about it.

TRUE: Has anything changed that might help to produce more progress?

Spence: The pool of qualified women has grown substantially over the years, as more and more women are going to college and getting advanced degrees. So that’s no longer a reason for there not being lots of women in senior management.

One thing we’re seeing at some companies is not only the presence of a woman, but the presence of several women in senior management or on the board. It’s really hard to speak up when you’re a lone voice, but now there are several voices – and hopefully that should make a difference. That’s encouraging.

Photo credit: Woman in office (Getty Images)

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About the author

Dr. Betty Spence is an author, speaker and expert on women in business. She currently serves as president of the National Association for Female Executives and Entrepreneurs (NAFE), the nation’s largest women’s professional association. She created the annual list of the “NAFE Top Companies for Executive Women,” a benchmark for corporations on women’s advancement, and chairs the NAFE Roundtable. She also advises companies on the advancement of women and conducts corporate workshops on leadership. She's a former writer for the Los Angeles Times and The Christian Science Monitor and a former professor of literature, Dr. Spence holds a Ph.D. in English and serves on the boards of directors of the Girl Scout Council of New York City and Girls Learn International.

Pat Wechsler is a New York-based writer and reporter. She has spent 30 years as a journalist at Business Week, Bloomberg, New York Newsday/Newsday and New York magazine. Recently, she helped launch FleishmanHillard TRUE, and she's developed original digital branded content for corporations such as Bank of America/Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan Chase.