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,

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.

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.

Is CEO Mary Barra the right woman for the job?

General Motors CEO Mary T Barra at Recall Congressional Hearing

General Motors CEO Mary T Barra at Recall Congressional Hearing

The idea of writing an article about Mary T. Barra, General Motor Co.’s Chief Executive Officer, and one of the few women to lead an US Fortune 500 company, has been haunting me since she assumed the realm of the automaker about nine months ago.

It is uncommon that a woman would be offered such a position not because we do not deserve it– but because for us, women, the glass ceiling seems to be thicker and harder to break. Numbers speak for themselves. According to Catalyst, less than five percent of women are CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies.

Women of color are even more underrepresented. According to Latina Magazine, only five percent of Latinas are sitting on Fortune 500 boards. Out of the 20 female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, only four are women of color, which paints a pretty grim reality for women of any race.

Much has been discreetly –or openly– discussed about the leadership values of women in the workplace. If they are nice, they are seen as less assertive than men or, the opposite, a self-confident woman risks to be seen as “difficult” or “opinionated.”

Barra, 53, seems to just have confirmed one of them, “…I was too nice,” she said at an interview before the investors’ meeting announcing new strategies for her company, the Wall Street Journal printed edition reported. “I hate the word culture,” apparently referring to GM’s internal way of doing things. “Culture is really just how we all behave,” and continued to affirm GM employees need to start acting differently, starting with her own behavior.

Being too nice and agreeable in a corporation plagued with mismanagement, lack of accountability and disperse responsibility for decisions that resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries –costing the company hefty fines and liability charges– does not seem to be the right course of action. The car manufacturer not only has lost market share but also its stock has fallen 17 percent since Barra took over, according to The Wall Street Journal. Not surprisingly, Wall Street has given Barra the thumb down.

Is it because she is a woman? Most importantly, the question I had since her nomination: Was she offered the job by the Board of Directors because she was a woman? Complaints and lawsuits against the major automaker started 17 years ago so directors must have been aware of the situation waiting to implode sooner or later. Whoever was leading the organization at the time of exposure was going to be accountable for facing Congressional inquiries, federal investigations and the public’s angry judgment, while confronting the hardest internal decisions if the company still wanted to survive in a very convoluted and competitive market.

Maybe they thought a woman’s presence would soften the impact of the charges. At the Congressional hearings, she was noticeably nervous and distressed. She was named to succeed Dan Akerson, but before this position, Barra served as the Executive Vice President of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain. Being a native GM born employee –she started working there at 18 –, she must have heard about the complaints.

However, at an interview published by the New York Times in November of 2013, just before her nomination as CEO, Barra did not acknowledge her candidacy or the internal situation at the Detroit giant. The interview is a fluff. She is lengthily questioned about the role of women at GM, how the culture has changed through the years –and the cars she drive. Really? Is that line of questioning appropriate for someone whose name is sounding as future CEO of a company jam-packed with problems?

As for her, what was her motivation to take the position? Did she feel more capable than any man to succeed in this difficult quest?

Since the 90s, five men CEOs preceded Barra, three of them plunged the automaker in billions of dollars in loss, and Akerson only achieved profit because he stepped into the position after the bankruptcy years. None of these men, not even Rick Wagoner –who dug the automaker into bankruptcy–, was ever faulted for their “man” leadership values. They were just making a succession of bad decisions.

However, if Barra fails to take GM out of the hole, will she be judged by her lack of knowledge and skilled steering or just because she is a Mary Barra2“woman”?

“If we take the time to examine the world that’s rising out of the ashes [of recession],” says Alexandra Levit in her new book Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success, “we see …a major paradigm shift…Inside the business world, organizations and individuals are looking inward and seeking a return to traditional human values like honesty, trust, moderation, open communications, and one-on-one relationship building.”

Although generalizations cannot be made across the board, in my view, these are values women bring to the workplace and to leadership. It is in our nature to be personal and openly discuss our problems, and we seek advice from others –friends, family or colleagues– to make our own decisions.

When on the road, we are not afraid to ask for directions, but we follow our own journey. When things get ugly, we prefer open communication and we trust ourselves in making the right decision at any time because we know we have the support of those cheering for us.

I really push for Barra’s success, and hope she would use her woman’s values to lead GM. If she does, she will open thousands of doors for the rest of us.