Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Gender Imbalance: Why Aren't There More Women Executives?

In an excellent Harvard Business Review article in March 2010, entitled ‘Women in Management: Delusions of Progress,’ Nancy Carter and Christine Silva mention that, “the accepted message on gender disparity in the workplace has for the past 10 to 15 years been one of acknowledgment and reassurance: Yes, women represent just 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and less than 15% of corporate executives at top companies worldwide, but give it time. It’ll change. After all, women also make up 40% of the global workforce, with double-digit growth in certain countries. They’re earning advanced professional degrees in record numbers and in some areas surpassing men. Companies have implemented programs to fix structural biases against women and support their full participation in leadership. Women are finally poised to make it to the top, the argument goes. Not yet, but soon,” (p. 19).

Shareholders and other corporate owners should start demanding fully diversified boardrooms and executive teams, so that they can reap the strategic and performance benefits.

Robbie Melton, Chairwoman of Women in Bio, believes that “women and men need to do more to educate business leaders and stockholders that a diverse workforce affects the bottom line to the positive. There have been studies that show this to be true, but who is paying attention? Marc Pritchard, president of Global Strategy at Procter & Gamble, spoke at a global businesswomen’s conference about how a diverse workforce has increased P&G’s profits. He needs to tell this to groups of male CEOs, not women. Men need to speak out on behalf of women; only then will the paradigm shift,” (cited in Ibarra and Hansen, 2010, p.14).

Organisations shouldn’t pay lip service to the principles of effective talent management and should be looking for the best talent to take the organisation forward into the future It’s no good asking for the best talent to step forward and then saying, ladies where do you think you’re going..

A 2009 article by Susan Adams, Atul Gupta and John Leech, reports on a study of 61 female CEO’s between 1992 and 2004 that found, “women continue to be under-represented in the senior ranks of corporate executives, and the literature documents a variety of barriers to women’s advancement in the corporate hierarchy. These realities, combined with recent findings suggesting that women leaders are more willing to take risks than men, suggest that women may self-select into leadership positions at firms in precarious financial health. If true, such self-selection would increase the likelihood of ‘failure’, in that successful leadership outcomes are less likely at firms in precarious financial condition, and provide another possible explanation for the under-representation of women in the senior ranks of corporate executives. In their attempt to find any chance to move up, such less risk-averse women leaders may in fact be hurting themselves,” (p.10).

Anne Mulcahy (Xerox chairwoman) proposed a simple test for companies to see if they have systemic bias; “take the resumes of the last 100 people hired, remove the names, do an assessment of where the hires should be positioned, and compare that with where they were placed,” (Carter and Silva, 2010, p.20). Anne Mulcahy’s statement is true for all kinds of bias and possible prejudice and one would hope that this process is being carried out as part of the HR department’s internal audit on a regular basis – as this should be a requirement of good governance and compliance within all organisations.

Carter and Silva (2010) highlight how, “research shows that diverse talent supports innovation and business success, yet organizations underutilise and undervalue their highest-potential female talent. Given the commonly held misperception that the talent pipeline is robust, companies are at risk of allowing complacency to inhibit their competitive advantage. While progress has been made in many firms, more work clearly needs to be done,” (p.21).


Adams, S.M., Gupta, A. and Leeth, J.D. (2009). Are Female Executives Over-represented in Precarious Leadership Positions? British Journal of Management; Vol. 20, Issue 1, p.1-12.

Carter, N. M. and Silva, C. (2010). Women in Management: Delusions of Progress.
Harvard Business Review; Vol. 88, Issue 3, p.19-21.

Ibarra, H., and Hansen, M.T., (2010). Women CEOs: Why So Few?: Interaction. Harvard Business Review; Vol. 88, Issue 3, p.14-15.

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