Leadership and Authorization: Our Publisher’s 2012 Year End Review

By Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of The Glass Hammer

Last week saw a flurry of activity around women’s progress at work. It was a fitting end to a year that has been coined the Year of the Woman, due to increased female political representation here in the US and perhaps due to a few high profile appointments in the business world, such as Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo and Virginia Rometty as CEO of IBM.

But before we start celebrating that our work is done here at The Glass Hammer, I would like to suggest that excessive media coverage of one or two appointments of women to top spots does not gender parity make.

Good Conversations

Last week, the 2020 Women on Boards campaign produced a series of events across the US on 12/12/12. 2020 WOB ’s mission is raising awareness to help get more women on boards – 20 percent by 2020 to be precise. I attended one of these events hosted by the Forté Foundation and Ernst & Young in New York.

I was impressed by the event’s dialogue, which recognized that corporate practices needed to change if women are to be recruited onto boards. I was encouraged by the poignant discussion around systems and policies being reviewed – such as terms limits for board members and retirement ages, which average 75 years old.

According to panelist Julie Hembrock Daum, Co-Head of the Board Practice & Director at the executive search firm Spencer Stuart, her firm will hit a landmark of placing 1,000 women on boards by the end of year. Daum stated, “I think the biggest challenge for women, as well as men trying to get onto a board, is the lack of turnover. But beyond that, I think that women need to advocate for each other more.” She also mentioned opportunities cropping up as well – for example, many older board members don’t have technology backgrounds or other competencies that today’s board members need.

Karen Twonarite, Partner & Americas Inclusiveness Officer at Ernst & Young, offered, “I have a front row seat into many industries and I think we have to bust myths around ‘think CEO, think Director,’ since 80 percent of women who sit on boards haven’t been CEOs, but have held other executive positions.”

She continued, “These women are very ambitious, but women and people of color often don’t have equitable sponsorship.”

She also offered solutions around the pipeline issue and argued that behavior change is needed to correct boardroom imbalances. She suggested that companies need to actually start hiring women for director positions and thus reduce the slate sitters situation.

This resonates greatly with me since I believe that too many companies are still in a compliance paradigm around appointing women to the board.

The quotas versus targets topic, like so many matters discussed at large in our lives, makes me think that we are simply having the wrong conversation as we gleefully avoid deep structure issues. Women as slate sitters sounds a lot to me like “binders full of women,” which is quite different from “boardrooms full of women.” This would require that women get promoted at an equal rate to men throughout their careers and that we (women and men) change our perceptions of what a leader looks like.

Another speaker, Joyce Roché, Director of AT&T, Tupperware, Macy’s, Snapple, and Former CEO of Girls Inc., suggested that, once on boards, women need to make sure they can find their voice. She relayed her experiences early on in her director career, when she felt she had “the imposter syndrome” in the boardroom. I can also relate to this as I was on a board at age 31 and felt very out of place amongst the upper class octogenarian English men who looked at me with suspicion as a young girl from the colonies (Northern Ireland to them is a colony!).

The panel discussed the merits of early stage company board positions and there was mixed opinions on whether non-profit board roles are a direct route to corporate board. According to some of the panelists, evidence suggests there is no correlation.

They also noted that finding the right corporate culture where you can see change and affect change is an important factor when applying for a board position.

And, finally, there is evidence that when companies do hire female directors, they become more likely to hire or promote women to senior management. For example, Kellogg School of Management released a study in 2011 titled “Chipping Away at the Glass Ceiling: Gender Spillovers in Corporate Leadership” (published in the May 2011 issue of The American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings). This data spanning the years from 1997 to 2009 revealed that as the number of women sitting on corporate boards increased, so did the number of women executives at those companies.

No Macro-Level Progress

Also, last week, Catalyst released a new 2012 census on women board directors and senior executives. According to this report, the needle isn’t actually moving. Catalyst’s media release shares the statistical truths.

  • “Women held only 16.6 percent of board seats in 2012—the seventh consecutive year of no growth.”
  • “Women held 14.3 percent of Executive Officer positions—flat-lined for the third straight year.”
  • “Women of color held only 3.3 percent of board seats, indicating no growth.”
  • “More than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies had no women of color board directors for the fifth consecutive year.”
  • “Women held only 8.1 percent of top earner slots.”

I don’t think anyone could call this anything other than disappointing. This latest research reinforces my beliefs around creating change at a systemic level. As long as core practices around hiring and promoting women are still subject to unconscious bias and somewhat conscious bias by the people who are do the hiring (both men and women), we can not expect change in any great quantity.

There isn’t a shortage of smart, qualified women in this world, but there is a shortage of people willing to recognize and authorize them to lead, manage, or serve on boards. There is systemic level work to be done.

A bright spot in all of this is that I believe that there is progress happening at a micro-level in many firms. These firms are brave enough to address issues and tackle them head on. They release their numbers, they benchmark, they ask why women and minorities don’t take the job when offered, and their CEO and management team create pathways for real change to happen.

My real life advice to readers of The Glass Hammer is to watch the top management at their companies and make sure their visuals match their audio. Watch for cognitive dissonance [PDF], where they acknowledge concepts but have no real representation of women on their board, or have a gendered approach to it. (For example, the only woman on the board is the head of HR.)

Catalyst’s findings reinforced my beliefs that we need to address systemic issues and unconscious bias in the women as well as the men to make people challenge their assumptions around who gets to lead and why.

Otherwise we will live Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result.

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