Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Ask the Experts: Women and Corporations

Why should women be represented at the highest corporate levels?

Stephanie George answers:

When I started my career over 30 years ago, there was strong resistance among companies to take a chance on a young woman whose nurturing and collaborative style seemed foreign to the traditional corporate culture. But I was lucky enough to work at two trendsetting companies, Disney/ABC and Time Warner, both of which recognized the importance of having women in the C-suite and championed sponsorship strategies and programs for women’s advancement. The programs I participated in gave me access to top executives, prepared me to move forward in my career, and provided the necessary skills and acumen to better serve on corporate boards.

While I learned a lot about business from these initiatives, I’ve also always stayed true to my own corporate style and I encourage other women to do the same. I’m more likely to start a business meeting with a hug than with a handshake. I manage my direct reports through motivation, not intimidation. I see colleagues as teammates, not adversaries.

These “feminine” traits that women bring to the workplace—warmth, compassion, collaboration, relationship building and people development—need to be appreciated and acknowledged. And not only do women excel in these so-called softer skills; they were also rated by their peers, bosses and other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts, according to a recent study by Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. It’s no wonder that a 2010 research initiative by McKinsey & Company showed that companies with more women in senior management outperform companies with no women in the senior ranks by 41 percent.

The facts present a business reality and corporate need that companies must continue to address. Having women in the highest levels of corporate leadership isn’t just good for women; it’s good for business.

Susan Silbermann answers:

Perhaps the better question is why not? Besides the basic principles of equity and fairness, one compelling reason is that companies do better when women hold top-ranking positions. A growing body of research has shown that there is a positive link between gender diversity on top leadership teams and companies’ financial performance. This is because these companies open themselves up to a greater breadth of life experiences and customer perspectives, and thereby enrich their overall strategy and decision-making.

There has been nothing more rewarding in my more than two decades at Pfizer than seeing that light bulb go off in the mind of a leader when confronted with their own unconscious bias toward developing, promoting and managing diverse colleagues in general, and women specifically.

To see someone with the power to move organizations forward with more representative levels of workforce composition—gender or otherwise—is to open their eyes to the future of potential talent for the company.

Another reason it is important to have women represented at the highest levels of corporate leadership is that they provide a beacon to those women striving to work their way up the corporate ladder. A survey of international companies as part of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF)  Corporate Gender Gap Report 2010 listed 15 barriers to women’s access to leadership positions. Companies surveyed identified a “lack of role models” as the third-biggest barrier. The women corporate leaders of today are helping bring up the women corporate leaders of tomorrow.

As the WEF and others have noted, a country’s competitiveness in today’s global economy is determined in great part by its attention to developing a talented and diverse workforce. Women make up half of the world’s population, yet remain vastly underrepresented in the workforce in many countries. Companies in the private sector must play a leading role in closing that gap, to the benefit of broader society.

Sam Fouad answers:

Diversity and inclusiveness are business imperatives bigger than gender. Yet gender issues are common to every country and business, so discussing women in leadership is a start for a broader and necessary D&I discussion.

Women’s empowerment is now widely recognized as good macroeconomics and better business. Governments and international organizations recognize that women are crucial to accelerate and sustain economic growth, and that “public-private partnerships” can support this progress.

Best practices in strategic and operational excellence now emphasize diversity and inclusion generally and women’s empowerment specifically. A growing number of studies—among them a 2004 report by the National Academy of Sciences—has demonstrated that more diverse teams outperform homogenous teams, even if the members of the homogenous teams are more capable. A recent report by the diversity nonprofit consulting firm Catalyst showed that Fortune 500 companies with even one woman on the board performed better than those without, and organizations with three or more women on the board outperformed other companies by staggering percentages.

A diverse board is a huge asset, but to achieve transformational change, diversity needs to be embedded throughout the organization—and experienced by clients. This requires everyone to be accountable for the culture shift, not just women, human resources offices and managers charged with diversity and inclusion.

Because companies, markets and cultures have different processes and rules for ensuring diversity and inclusion, each will have to develop—and follow—its own benchmarks.

Elisa Garcia C. answers:

Women make or participate in all major purchasing decisions, including homes, vacations, cars, health care, and even the family computer. It has been reported that 85 percent of all brand purchases are made by women. Baby Boomer women are the healthiest and wealth-
iest of any generation. They have been in the workforce and have invested wisely over the years. They will control an even greater proportion of consumer wealth in the next decade because they are inheriting from their parents as well as their husbands (due to the fact that many are younger and healthier than their husbands). Companies that recognize that leadership by women will give them unique insights into this affluent and influential consumer will become industry leaders.

Companies also benefit from the inclusive leadership style that women have historically used to help families and volunteer organizations thrive. Women tend to solve problems through team building and nurturing, with objectives that resolve the issues of today while providing for a sustainable future.

Despite these benefits, women are still underrepresented. With only 16 percent of the Fortune 500 board seats held by women, is it any wonder that there are only 17 women CEOs and that only 14 percent of their executive ranks are female?

I am fortunate to be a part of that 14 percent. I received advice, friendship and opportunities from many men who were inclusive and recognized the value of a female perspective on their management teams. My experience as an executive vice president and general counsel of two public companies has given me an opportunity to set policy and guide strategic decisionmaking.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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