A level playing field

1 March 2006

Even today, women remain seriously under-represented in the upper echelons of the business world. Steve Coomber and Marjan Bolmeijer investigate why, even after decades of legislation and earnest corporate commitments to equality and diversity, this is still the case.

On 1st January 2006, a new law came into effect in Norway: women must hold at least 40% of the seats on the boards of publicly listed Norwegian companies. The move has attracted fierce criticism, but judging by evidence from around the world, some kind of action is required.

Despite recent advances, not enough women are making it to the top of the business world to conclude that equal opportunities are truly in place. There is no question that some women have made significant progress: women like Shelly Lazarus, president and CEO at leading advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather; Barbara Kux, chief procurement officer at Royal Philips Electronics; Susan Desmond-Hellman, president of product development at biotech giant Genentech; and Alison Winter, president and CEO of personal financial services, North-East region, at Northern Trust, and co-chair of powerful women's networking organisation, the Committee of 200.

We asked these extremely successful women a number of important questions. What prevents women from making more headway? How can organisations help women ride the corporate elevator to the top? What does the future hold for women who want to be in senior leadership positions?


For women who aspire to the C-suite and the boardroom, the statistics make unpleasant reading. "Just looking at the top five highest paid people in the Fortune 500 companies, roughly 16% or 17% of those top officer positions are filled by women," says Alison Winter. "There are no women CEOs in the Fortune 100 and only nine in the Fortune 500; that's a minute number."

Outside the US the picture is equally disappointing. Of Europe's top 200 companies, women occupy only 8% of corporate boardroom seats; 38% have no women on their board.


Organisations cannot afford to ignore the facts, says Shelly Lazarus. "It is important to consider in any organisation why, if you are starting with equal numbers of men and women, the women are not advancing to senior management at the same rate as the men," she says.

There are several possible explanations. One obvious reason is that women take career breaks to have children. Susan Desmond-Hellman sees it as a timing issue. "In many careers, the very time when you are expected to put your head down, drive for results and be seen as a high flyer tends to be the child-bearing years," she says.

This fits in with the concept of the 'career tournament'. Executives entering on a high-flyer track compete at every level of the organisation to be labelled a winner. If you are not identified as a winner at each round, your career stalls.

"You have to make diversity a conscious question."

"This is very wasteful of women's careers, because the tournament model is linked to how far up the ladder you are at a given age," says Dr Val Singh, a leading academic on the subject of women in management, at Cranfield School of Management.

"Women who take a maternity break in their mid and late thirties are out of the tournament."


Regardless of tournament status, getting back into the game after a career break isn't an easy proposition, or even necessarily an attractive one. "It is difficult both tactically and mentally for women to come back into the workplace after leaving," says Desmond-Hellman. "But it is not only difficult to re-enter, I think there is a certain expectation of an almost 24/7 crazy lifestyle – Blackberrys, planes, international global companies. Women who step off the treadmill may not be so eager to step back on."

Lazarus cites disenchantment as another reason women leave before getting to the upper reaches of an organisation's power structure. Many leave, she says, as they are starting to edge upwards in middle management, but before reaching the level of senior leadership. "My own view is that the women who leave don't like their jobs particularly," she says. "They don't find satisfaction in their jobs or see the promise of gaining more responsibility in the near future. I don't know many women who are thrilled with their job."


Research suggests that there are a number of gender differences in leadership style. "Women and men do tend to lead and manage in different ways," says Mark Goodridge, chief executive of ER Consultants. "Women tend to be more collegiate, more concerned to get the best out of everyone, better at lobbying and influencing, and more mindful of the need to get buy-in and support for change."

Because of our flawed perception of what makes a great leader, these differences can prove problematic. Surveys of senior women and the problems they face consistently show that gender stereotyping of leadership is one of the biggest barriers to advancement. Leaders are commonly perceived as male and masculine – powerful and charismatic figures leading from the front.


"Ambitious women needn't wait for the company or industry they work in to change."

Whatever the reasons for the gender imbalance at the corporate pinnacle, it is generally accepted as a bad thing for business. As Barbara Kux notes, the current driver for companies endorsing diversity management is competitive advantage.

"We need to recognise, from the top down, that this is a new world driven by the IT revolution and globalisation," she says. "We are in an 'idea economy', where competitive value is derived from ideas. The good news is that having diverse management teams generates more ideas. It is a more innovative environment. Diversity is a key enabler for meeting the challenges of the 21st century."

Lazarus agrees. "We talk about women, but to me there is the whole issue of diversity. Some organisations are just inherently diverse, others aren't. Those that are inherently diverse have many more women in senior management positions. Rather than asking how we get more women into this organisation, a better question is how do we make organisations more diverse in their DNA?"

As Alison Winter points out, "In companies across the US you will find men, and some women, who reach a certain level through controlling information and maintaining hierarchies. Those people fail. You cannot control information any longer. You cannot tell your workers what to do; they will just walk out the door. The whole methodology for successful leadership has changed dramatically, and it plays to women's strengths. Women have these collaborative and persuasive skills in abundance."


As part of the drive for diversity, governments and organisations must focus on the challenge of keeping women in the workforce long enough to see them reach the top. Many organisations are taking action. There is little doubt, however, that more can be done to create a more women-friendly culture. Government legislation or more extreme measures such as quotas or positive discrimination may not be necessary. A conscious, deliberate effort, however, is required.

"You have to make diversity a conscious question. If you don't, you just continue on as a company where everybody looks the same," notes Lazarus. "How do you make people feel that it is okay to look different, to act and behave differently?"

"Look at the environment," says Susan Desmond-Hellman. "What are the subtle and not so subtle cues that we are giving which suggest that we want a particular group of people, or that we don't want them? It may be expectations about how late you work. It may be expectations about how much travel is required, flexibility and other similar factors. The default, unless a company works really hard at it, is a culture with a set of expectations and an environment that are very user-friendly for males."


Ambitious women needn't wait for the company or industry they work in to change. There are several things that they can and should do to improve their prospects. Networking is one subject that often comes up in a discussion of women's advancement. There are many women's networks and the consensus seems to be that belonging to such a network can be a powerful part of the female executive's armoury.

"It is very encouraging for all of us," says Kux. "It is extremely inspirational to meet examples of successful and professional women managers. It is a very positive message."

"How do we make organisations more diverse in their DNA?"

As Desmond-Hellman points out, however, networking should also take place within the organisation. Internal networking is partly about providing role models and allowing women to see what is possible.

"There is a role for women in networking," she says. "Internally at the company I have been a mentor to both males and females. For the women I am a mentor to, it is a nice opportunity for them to see a senior woman in a mentoring role."

Managing visibility is also essential. During Singh's research she asked a number of directors, men and women, what the most important triggers were for their success. She discovered a virtuous circle where high performance raised visibility, visibility led to opportunities and through those opportunities the directors were stretched, experienced risk and added to their skill set, which in turn led to more visibility and more senior sponsorship.

"Visibility seems to be the key," says Singh. "The junior women thought that if they delivered exceptional performance, then that would be enough, whereas women who made director positions really had managed their visibility."


So what does the future look like for women? Will governments legislate women into the boardroom as in Norway? Will global market forces propel talent to the top regardless of gender? Will a tipping point be passed? Can women who want to be senior executives expect to fulfil that ambition?

While the statistics paint a discouraging picture, there are reasons to be optimistic, not least of which is all the women who are out in the business world, leading corporations and demonstrating to other women just what is possible.

One thing is certain: judging by the responses from the women interviewed for this article, women in senior leadership positions embrace workplace diversity and set great store by a meritocratic promotion structure. They look forward to a day when the questions and issues are not focused on 'women and leadership', but on leadership in its own right.

"You have to be careful not to marginalise women leaders," says Desmond-Hellman. "Women want to be great leaders. They don't want to be great women leaders."