How Do You Define a Good Company for Executive Women?

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Last week the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE) released its 2013 Top 50 Companies for Executive Women list. The annual list has served to continuously raise the bar on what it means to be a “top company.”

For example, Carol Evans, CEO of NAFE and President of Working Mother Media, explained that initially, to make the list, a company had to have at least one woman on its board of directors to even apply for consideration. But, as more companies elected women to their boards, NAFE bumped that requirement up to two women per board two years ago.

“We are hoping to raise it to three in the future,” she continued. “And you do get more points for having more than two women on the board now.”

Beyond the boardroom, NAFE also takes into account factors like advancement programs, the numbers of women rising to the top, the percentage of women running billion dollar divisions, the percentage of women reporting to the CEO, the percentage of women in the top 10% and 20% of earners at the company, and the percentage of women leading profit and loss functions.

All of these factors reveal whether a company enables women to take charge as leaders. But, Evans says, even though companies are evolving to be more female-supportive, it’s not time to celebrate just yet. There’s still a long way to go.

State of Women in Leadership

In the past year, Evans continued, the state of women in leadership has been interesting to monitor. “It was exciting to see the appointment of high visibility CEOs who are women, like Virginia Rometty. To me, that was one of the glory days for women. IBM has been a strong supporter of women for a long time, and a NAFE winner since the first year. Naming a female CEO was a milestone!”

She continued, “There were also some female to female CEO handoffs like Andrea Jung to Sheri McCoy at Avon and I think that is also a very important statement about the success of women.”

Women also made progress through the top ranks of companies on the list. For example, last year, 19 percent of P&L executives at companies on the list were women, and this year that rose to 22 percent. Over a quarter (26 percent) of the leaders of billion-dollar divisions at NAFE Top 50 Companies are women (compared to 23 percent last year).

Women are also 10 percent of the CEOs at NAFE Top 50 Companies, and women hold 26 percent of board seats at companies on the list (factors which held steady from last year).

But, Evans continued, even the positive changes are, at best, incremental. “As a whole, we’re seeing improvement. But the NAFE Top Companies are doing so much better than the rest of the country where it’s still very slow progress. In one year, you don’t really see the magic, and it’s still very distressing to see that only four percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. The Congress becoming almost 20 percent female is a great breakthrough. But I still think it’s appalling that women are not 50 percent of Congress and at least 20 percent of the CEOs in the Fortune 500.”

She added, “Until we hit those massive numbers, we should not be celebrating so much – we’re so far from any kind of parity.”

What Women Can Do

Evans believes that there are many ways for senior women to flex their influence and help break barriers for women climbing the ladder. “To me, it’s the power of women that’s going to make this happen,” she said.

She encouraged senior women to have conversations with their male counterparts at companies about “power sharing.” She explained, “It means continually thinking about gender in leadership. Women can ask men to power share, and ask strongly for men to share the table in any situation.”

Another way to get more women into leadership roles is through networking and sharing best practices. For example, Evans cited the NAFE Roundtable gathers women P&L leaders to talk about solutions. “They go right back to their companies the next day and institute some of these things.”

The power of sponsorship should also not be ignored, she continued. “We should also help our fellow women by role modeling power and meeting with people up and down the ranks.”

What Companies Can Do

Of course, there is a lot that companies need to do to help support women who are rising through the organization, as well as the women already at the top.

Evans mentioned mentorship and sponsorship programs, along with creating and supporting strong women’s networks and ensuring gender is a part of all succession planning discussions. “Having three or more women on the board, of course, is really powerful, and having a strong CEO commitment to diversity, whether they are male or female, making public statements in support of it.”

She also discussed the importance of including women on the slate of candidates for top jobs – who are actually considered for those jobs, and not just placeholders on the list. She continued, “But my favorite is tying manager pay to diversity. The responsibility really lies with management for diversity and inclusion.”

That means both incentivizing managers to pay attention to diversity and training them continuously on it. “If managers haven’t gone through management training on a regular basis on gender diversity, you’re going to miss the boat,” she warned.