Women in leadership redefining corporate America

Corporate culture has been identified as an underlying issue for lack of women in leadership positions in the workplace. Within the USA, gender and race discrimination clearly still exists and unfortunately it inevitably leaves minorities feeling isolated. However, a recent study entitled The Everest Project is throwing some hope into this controversial topic.

Johan De Nysschen, president of General Motors Co.'s Cadillac unit, left, Mary Barra, chief executive officer of General Motors Co. (GM), and Mark Reuss, executive vice president of global product development at GM,

Johan De Nysschen, president of General Motors Co.’s Cadillac unit, left, Mary Barra, chief executive officer of General Motors Co. (GM), and Mark Reuss, executive vice president of global product development at GM, attend a Cadillac event at the 2015 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Are women in leadership truly redefining corporate America?

The Everest Project seeks to find answers. In their 2016 Eve of Change: Women Redefining Corporate America report, researchers analyzed two years of interviews with 132 women in senior leadership roles – including Hispanic, Black, Pan-Asian, White and LGBT women in over 80 Fortune 500 corporations within different industries and regions in the US.

For a more comprehensive perspective, the report was amplified by conducting an other 260 interviews with executive level personnel to whom these women reported. Women interviewed as well as their managers were selected predominantly within zero to three levels of CEO role.

Among many findings, the study highlighted that 57 percent of the strategic changes within the companies researched were directed by women, identifying that women are leading change and transformation within US organizations. The research concludes that women have used their cultural and gender qualities as leadership strength to create innovations in the boardroom.

As exciting as these results might sound, it is hard to believe that female influence can cause such a strong impact in corporate America. A study by CNNMoney shows that only 14.2 percent of the top five leadership roles in businesses within the S&P 500 are held by women. Even more concerning is the fact that out of 500 companies involved in this research, only 24 CEO seats are occupied by females while only 16.5 percent of chief financial officers, chief operating officers and other key roles at major companies are held by women, a small pool of leaders to draw from.

“Yet current corporate leaders are still a long way from reflecting the diversity of their employees,” The Everest Report says. “One [interviewed] Everest executive’s manager (also a woman) observes, ‘We experience change, but have women gotten to the top? Looking at the top there are only white men… It’s like you have a glass ceiling and then you have lead above a glass ceiling.’ Women occupy 53% of all professional-level jobs, but they represent ever-slimmer wedges of the pie closer to the top. When race and ethnicity are added to the mix, the imbalance is even greater, with numbers almost too small to analyze. And despite a changing landscape, 53% of LGBT workers nationwide still have to hide who they are at work at the cost of individual employee engagement and retention.” (The Everest Report, pp. 28-30)

What do executive women bring to the table?

Pamela Carlton and Lily Tang, co-founders of The Everest Project

Pamela Carlton and Lily Tang, co-founders of The Everest Project

Gender diversity at a senior management level is a topical yet controversial subject. In 2011, a report called “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance And Women’s Representation On Boards” clearly defined a positive link between gender diversity at board level and financial performance.

The report highlights that a diverse, inclusive environment at senior management level is not just essential to improve opportunities for women but also benefits economic results and profits as a business.

Measuring return on sales (ROS), return on invested capital (ROIC), and return on equity (ROE), findings in this report include:

  • Companies with the most women board directors (WBD) outperform those with the least on ROS by 16 percent.
  • Companies with the most WBD outperform those with the least on ROIC by 26 percent.
  • Companies with sustained high representation of WBD, defined as those with three or more WBD in at least four of five years, significantly outperformed those with sustained low representation by 84 percent on ROS, by 60 percent on ROIC, and by 46 percent on ROE.
  • Encouraging a corporate culture that is focused on equality could help develop and attract talented and ambitious women while increasing levels of employee satisfaction and motivation.

The Everest Project approaches the issue from another perspective. “Effectively bringing together diverse individuals in a workplace requires what’s known as cultural intelligence—or the capability to bridge the gap with people from other cultures and even subcultures within your own group. This is an ability that Everest women possess in great measure, and they demonstrate its known contribution to team, leadership, and managerial effectiveness. They’re remarkably comfortable leading diverse groups, drawing upon their knowledge and experiences of their difference to connect with employees and relate to clients.” (p. 33)

They are conducting corporate culture change by applying their own gender strengths to leadership: embracing smart risk, practicing humility as a critically important strategic skill, bringing collaboration as new reality of hyper connected environments, and understanding that bringing in differences means having more to contribute.

Companies must invest in analyzing their cultural issues, in order to successfully address and overcome bias opinions within the workplace. The businesses that fail to adapt to these demands will find that they also fail to attract the best talent, retain their employees and ultimately struggle to keep up with society’s expectations of them as an employer.

How does corporate America deal with gender discrimination?

A lack of opportunities for ambitious and talented people might force them to look elsewhere to develop their career, especially within certain industries that lack the ability to cater to their career aspirations.

See in this interactive graph how gender and minority diversity are represented in the Tech industry.

See on this interactive infograph how gender and minority diversity are represented in the Tech industry. http://www.theverge.com/2015/8/20/9179853/tech-diversity-scorecard-apple-google-microsoft-facebook-intel-twitter-amazon

For example, within the technology industry, lack of diversity is common. Some women in leadership feel uncomfortable within their work environment. Gender discrimination but also issues facing their age, sexuality and race or ethnic backgrounds have been highlighted as the main reason why many were leaving the technology industry.

To improve upon these issues, training, cultural assessments and distinctive career paths for every employee should be considered. These solutions offer heightened visibility and transparency of a business’s workforce, whilst creating processes that extinguish any unconscious bias existing within America’s corporate environment.

“When powerful women take on the status quo, the very definition of leadership changes. Risk becomes investment in learning, and being different means having more to contribute. The mantras for collective genius and shared value replace the win-lose, in-or-out mentality. Women today are designing a new corporate culture for a time of rapid change.” (p. 36)

Diversity is an opportunity for businesses in corporate America to develop their competitive advantage, while attracting, retaining and developing talented people. There is still more work to be done to improve women in leadership representation within corporate culture. Society is adding more and more pressure for corporate organizations to overcome these challenges. Businesses that invest in gender diversity now will see improvements in their financial, economic and workforce performance as they train and mentor the future leaders of tomorrow.

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