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How To Make Sure More Women Get On HBR’s Top CEO List In The Future

Out of 100 CEOs, only two women made the list. We take a look at what it will take to change the leadership landscape for women.

How To Make Sure More Women Get On HBR’s Top CEO List In The Future
[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Gety Images]

In its November issue, Harvard Business Review (HBR) revealed its list of the “Best-Performing CEOs in the World.”

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One thing HBR’s list has in common with Glassdoor’s ranking of the 50 most well-liked chiefs in the U.S., or even Equilar’s report of the 100 largest company CEOs is the underrepresentation of women.

On HBR’s list, 98 out of 100 CEOs are men. The two women who the magazine included are Debra Cafaro of Ventas and Carol Meyrowitz of TJ Maxx.

HBR says their methodology was different this year:

In the past, our ranking was based exclusively on hard stock market numbers. We looked at total shareholder return, as well as the change in each company’s market capitalization. We’ve added to the mix a measurement of each company’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance.

To get there, HBR’s research team first culled a list of companies that that were in the S&P Global 1200 at the end of 2014. The index includes firms in North America, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Australia.

CEOs who had not been at the helm for more than two years were not included, as were any who had been arrested or convicted of a crime. The final pool consisted of 907 CEOs from 896 companies (several companies had co-CEOs) representing 46 nationalities and running companies based in 30 countries.

The research team then took a deep dive into financial data, adjusting for different countries and industries. That became 80% of the CEO’s score. They calculated the remaining 20% based on environmental, social, and governance research from Sustainalytics.

It’s hard to argue with these numbers. But it’s important to note that women are underrepresented at this level of leadership across many major public companies. Women currently hold 22 (4.4%) of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies, according to the latest evaluation by Catalyst. Why does this persist, and more importantly, what can be done about it?

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Sandy Rubinstein, CEO of digital marketing company DXagency, says that there are two issues with the list. It evaluates CEOs from around the world but specifically names the U.S., Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Australia. “Although the lack of women CEOs is a topic openly discussed in the U.S., the list includes countries that are not typically strong supporters of women as leaders in industry,” she states. “The fundamental flaw outside the United States is that women are still considered good workers with exceptional contribution, but are not charged to lead in the numbers they should be,” says Rubinstein.

The Conflict Of Choice

The challenge for the U.S., Rubinstein believes, is that women are still trying to break through that glass ceiling and make a variety of life choices that affect how and when and where they ascend. “Many women feel that during the years their children are small, they want the flexibility to have more work-life balance and take a less aggressive role with their careers,” she observes, while men can spend those years working their way up the corporate ladder. “This disadvantage puts women seven to 10 years behind their male counterparts,” she says.

Even so, Rubinstein says, “As this generation of women re-engage their careers, it is my belief that the list will look very different in the next decade,” as they are the first who’ve had the opportunity to “break the barriers that keep them out of the boardroom.”

The Generation of Change

They’ve done it by disrupting the traditional models of leadership. “What I love about this generation of leaders is that they are curating their own model for success,” says Tiffany Dufu. As a gen Xer working as the chief leadership officer for Levo, Dufu has witnessed this firsthand through Levo’s millennial founder Caroline Ghosn.

Turning Marian Wright Edelman’s famous quote, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” on its head, Dufu contends that millennials can be whatever they imagine. “They are imagining a future in which leadership is inclusive and nimble,” she says. As the most educated and racially diverse generation, Dufu says millennials also have enormous amount of grit, resilience, and optimism. “They don’t say ‘we don’t see ourselves reflected and feel bad,’” she argues, they just opt to be different. “I’ve never met so many people committed to launching their own thing,” Dufu adds.

Simply waiting for the generational shift to equalize the number of female leaders may take too long, says Susan Adams, professor of management at Bentley University, who has published research on gender in the workplace. In the interim, she cautions, “We will continue to see talented women leave the business world through early retirements and shifts to nonprofit work.”

Adams says she was struck not only by how few women made the list, but also by how many became CEOs from the inside career path. “Studies show that insiders are more successful, so this is not surprising,” she says. “Yet, for women, it poses a problem.” Adams says the number of female CEOs will continue to be low until companies promote more women to executive positions from within.

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This is going to be tough, says Adams, because today’s C-suites are still predominantly male and changing at a slower pace than their corporate boards, which have received more visibility and external pressure to diversify.

We’ve also seen from the recent gender equality report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. that top brass are usually promoted because they have direct responsibility for the profitability of the company and its core operations. A majority of men have roles like this, while their female counterparts hold support roles in departments such as HR, legal, and IT. Job responsibilities that directly impact the bottom line help the employee prepare for executive roles, and without that preparation, women are less likely to be considered.

Adams says, “It may take legislation such as those passed in California and Massachusetts that require reporting of gender diversity of boards and senior management to accelerate the pace.”

Redefine Leadership

Another way to change the ratio would be to broaden the definition of effective leadership right now. Traits such as “taking charge” often correlate to masculine leadership qualities, while “taking care” is aligned with women in charge. Both men and women ranked other men to be more effective at “taking charge,” according to a Catalyst study.

Sava Berhané, associate director of Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business (CWB), suggests that instead of simply clamoring to appoint more women to the helm, we need to support effective male leaders who don’t have conventionally masculine leadership traits. “After all, the data suggests it’s both men and women who need to include more stereotypically feminine qualities in their visions of leadership,” she writes.

Accentuate The Positive

Finally, Deidre Paknad recommends the media cover women who are leading “not as freaks of nature or as defying all odds,” but just as leaders who should be part of the action plan. The CEO and cofounder of Workboard believes, “Focusing on their absence is necessary, but then their absence becomes the narrative (and self-reinforcing).” She says that giving equal airtime to those who are present will erode unconscious bias by providing a new norm. Says Paknad: “It will provide evidence of legitimacy and role models for those that follow.”  

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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