Mixed Success for Women in New York Companies’ Leadership – And How to Improve

wecny leadership censusBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Last week, the Women’s Executive Circle of New York presented the results of its “2009 New York Census – The state of Women Business Leaders in New York State.” The study was created in partnership with Columbia Business School.

Yessinia Scheker-Isquierdo and Candace L. Quinn, co-presidents of WECNY opened the event with mixed results. On one hand, said Quinn, “In New York we have actually increased the number of seats held by women.” But on the other, “the percentage of companies that have no women [in top positions] has increased” as well.

Companies should encourage women in their top ranks, especially in challenging times, she explained. Women are skilled at keeping the important issues at the forefront of a discussion. The diversity of background, thought, and decision making that women bring to the table allows for dynamic solutions to problems, rather than allowing hard conversations to drift into group-think territory.

The Census Results

Ann P. Bartell, Ph.D., Professor of Workforce Transportation at Columbia Business School, began her presentation of the study’s findings with a comparison of the state of women in the top 100 publicly traded firms in New York to the state of women in the United States as a whole, as determined by the White House Project.

According to a November Forbes article that Dr. Bartell mentioned, nationally, women account for 18% of leadership positions across the board. In comparison, in the state of New York, 17% of director positions are held by women, and only 10.9% of executive officer positions are held by women.

Additionally, said Dr. Bartell, “almost three quarters of firms have no female executive officers,” whatsoever.

Referring to studies showing that gender diversity in company leadership increases revenues, Dr. Bartell pointed out that based on the study’s data, “there does seem to be a pattern in terms of revenue and women directors.” At the same time, the study found no particular relationship with revenue and female executive officers.

Because of the abundance of banking and finance firms in New York (compared with the rest of the United States), the researchers from WECNY and Columbia were also able to examine leadership gender diversity within this subset of New York companies.

Dr. Bartell pointed out that while there was a lot of turnover in the banking and finance industry, from a research standpoint, turnover benefited women in the census. She explained that 6 firms which made the list of study participants in 2007 were no longer eligible for inclusion. At the same time, 7 new firms joined the list, and those firms were more gender balanced that those which left.

The report explains, “There were six companies in the top 100 in 2006 that are no longer in the top 100 for 2008… 14.3 percent of the directors and executive officers in these companies were women.” In comparison, “Seven new companies joined the 2008 list… 15.5 percent of directors and executive officers in these companies are women.”

Summing up the report, Dr. Bartell said, “Change has indeed been beneficial to women in terms of directorship and executive suites.” She continued, “But in case of the executive suite, more effort is needed.”

Next Steps for Moving Women into the Boardroom

Following the presentation of results, moderators Kate Waters, WECNY Vice President and Treasurer and Nicole Sebastian, WECNY Board Member sat down with Sallie Krawcheck President of Global Wealth and investment Management at Bank of America to find out her advice on getting more women into leadership positions in New York’s top companies.

Krawcheck explained, “it’s difficult to get women into the boardroom when they’re not coming up in the business” as a whole. The real work in getting women into leadership positions has to take place at all levels of a company as the result of a long term effort.

She also expressed her views on the challenges women face in the workplace. “Research continues to show that women… have to walk a much finer line in their performance than men do,” she said. Additionally, “there tends to be a broader range of accepted behavior for men than women.” For example, she said, when a man loses his temper in a meeting, it’s not taken seriously. But when a women loses her temper, it is remembered for years to come.

Finally, she provided some advice for women looking to get on boards. First, she has to have a track record of success in business. Second, she said, “boards today are looking for hard skills,” like finance or risk management. And third, “networking and knowing people and being in the flow.”

She added that the job of a board has grown more challenging and time-consuming than ever. “If you’re thinking about being on aboard, don’t take it lightly. Make sure the other areas of your life are under control.”