Most companies recognize that corporate America needs to usher more women into its upper ranks. They just don’t understand why or how female executives serve their self-interest.
Though women represent 46% of the U.S. workforce, they hold only about 6% of executive titles like CEO, chairwoman, and executive vice president. And only four women hold CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies, including Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard and Andrea Jung of Avon, both of whom were named to their positions last year. (Click here for more information from the 2000 Catalyst Census.)
So what’s the problem? For most corporations, the challenge lies in justifying a financial and strategic investment in recruiting and supporting female talent, and in overcoming the hurdles associated with retaining top women. But Ellen Snee and Jan Shubert think they’ve found a few key methods for clearing those hurdles.
As president and vice president of Fine Line Consulting, a Newton, Massachusetts-based firm dedicated to the advancement of female corporate leaders, Snee and Shubert watch firsthand as companies struggle with issues of female leadership. Since Snee founded the company in 1996, Fine Line consultants have worked with nearly 300 senior and middle-management women in Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies, such as Goodyear and Marriott International. Working individually with high-level women, Fine Line helps its clients promote their efforts, tackle work obstacles, and navigate internal politics. The consultants also organize seminars for high-potential women and advise upper-level male managers on attracting and retaining female talent.
Fast Company spoke with Snee, 50, and Shubert, 54, about the barriers to and the benefits of promoting women into top leadership roles. In Part One of this two-part story, they offer five important reasons why companies must recognize and promote female talent. In Part Two, Snee and Shubert identify several major problems faced by both women and their employers, and offer advice for solving those problems.
Part One: Five Reasons Why Your Company Should Care About Female Leaders
1. Women are leaving corporate America nearly twice as fast as men.
While much has been said about the number of women leaving corporate America to pursue entrepreneurial ventures, data on the recent women’s exodus suggest that women abandon their jobs for a much wider range of reasons. Though some do move on to become entrepreneurs or free agents, many leave because they feel underutilized or because they see few opportunities for advancement. Fine Line believes employers must take steps to recognize and reverse this disheartening trend.
“It’s a very simplistic analysis to say, ‘Oh good, women are leaving corporate America to run their own businesses,’ ” Snee says. “While leaving longtime employers may be a positive experience for some women, I believe this exodus will set women back in the long run. Corporate America is losing an entire generation of women leaders.”
2. Ignoring women means ignoring a crucial talent pool.
“Today, smart organizations must be prepared to make maximum use of all talent, regardless of gender, race, or any other discriminating factors,” Snee says. And though a company’s survival often hinges on its ability to attract and retain talent, the fact remains that many companies fail to utilize female talent fully.
“If a company wants to mirror the marketplace and if a company is committed to a continued investment in people, women must be included in the leadership population,” Shubert says.
3. The one-dimensional model of career progression and compensation is outdated and ineffective.
While women working in startups may feel liberated from traditional models of career progression, the vast majority of women in older corporations still find themselves facing the outdated career tracks that have dominated corporate America for more than half a century. “In the past, white men typically worked their way up the ladder and entered top-management positions in their late 50s or early 60s,” Snee explains. “That’s not necessarily what the workplace looks like anymore. And the further you travel down in an organization, the more diverse the population becomes. Leadership needs to reflect that diversity.”
Fine Line encourages companies to examine their patterns of career advancement and to ask themselves, “Does this model still make sense considering the diversity of our workforce?”
“Many of today’s compensation models still parallel outdated models of career progression,” Shubert says. “Those compensation models were designed to support men as the sole breadwinners in families, and that’s not the reality anymore.” Shubert thinks that forward-thinking companies must consider part-time and interrupted employment, and then adjust compensation and benefits accordingly.
4. Women offer a unique and valuable business perspective.
By promoting women to top-ranking, highly visible positions, corporations can send a message to female employees throughout the organization that women’s voices matter. “Companies should create an environment of curiosity about women’s business insights,” Shubert says. “Women’s opinions can be a complex and valuable asset to the business package.”
But the responsibility of amplifying women’s voices should not rest entirely in the hands of upper management. Women must work proactively to promote themselves as well. “Women should communicate clearly the assets they bring to the organization — their talents, skills, perspectives, insights — the whole package,” Shubert says.
5. Women leaders attract new female talent and invigorate the women working below them.
When women standing on the top rungs help make crucial decisions, they also demonstrate a power that is attractive to female recruits and that encourages women throughout the company to consider ways in which they might excel. “Examples of strong female leadership send a message to the women in the organization that there’s hope for them,” Snee says. “Women are more likely to be promoted when other women sit at that decision-making table.”
Contact Jan Shubert (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Ellen Snee (email@example.com) by email.