4 steps toward rectifying gender inequality in the C-suite

Boosting the number of female leaders makes good business sense.

The number of women in the American workforce exceeds that of men, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the gender breakdown among members of the C-suite.

“Women hold just 9% of top management positions in the U.S.”

A fact sheet published by the Center for American Progress last year noted that just 16.9 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies are occupied by women, and 4.6 percent of these corporations have female CEOs. In the financial services industry, only 12.4 percent of executive officers are female, while women compose a meager 14 percent of senior management positions at Silicon Valley startups. Across all companies in the United States, the figures are even more dismal: Fewer than one in 10 (9 percent) of top management positions are held by female professionals.

Given that women compose a majority of the country’s population and nearly half of the U.S. labor force, they should have a much larger executive presence. In fact, companies with gender-diverse leadership tend to enjoy higher stock price growth and larger returns on equity, according to a white paper released by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Moreover, a 2014 E&Y report titled “Women on boards: Global approaches to advancing diversity” acknowledged what it termed “certain qualities and characteristics” that can be of great benefit to companies and tend to be more commonly exhibited by women. These include listening skills, empathy, patience, long-term thinking and a commitment to ethics and fairness.

Companies with gender-diverse leadership tend to outperform their counterparts.
Companies with gender-diverse leadership tend to outperform their counterparts.

So, if boosting the number of female leaders through internal promotion or external executive search and recruitment efforts makes such good business sense, why aren’t C-suites more gender-diverse?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but for some firms, the problem is simply not knowing where to start. In an article for Entrepreneur, Mariah Deleon, vice president of people at Glassdoor, presented several tips to enterprises that fall into this category.

1. Pinpoint gender bias in executive recruiting, career development and employee retention
A company may not be consciously biased against women, but some of its recruitment, development and retention practices may still favor men.

“Compare salaries to ensure equity in pay … analyze the percentage of women versus men who participate in training, mentoring or other career-development activities and consider surveying current and former employees to find out whether they perceive differences in the way males and females are recruited and developed,” Deleon advised.

“When many of a company’s leaders are men, this can result in an unconscious bias.”

It’s human instinct for people to relate to and gravitate toward individuals like themselves, and when many of a company’s leaders are men, this can result in an unconscious bias toward male candidates and employees.

2. Address any bias uncovered
The first step toward improvement is to identify the aspects that need to be changed, which is where Tip No. 1 comes in – but where do companies go from there? Once the problem is clearly defined, it’s time to create and execute a solution.

“If few women are participating in career-development activities, for instance, consider setting up a special mentoring program for female executives, or if a salary study shows that men are being paid more for doing the same work as women, by all means, adjust those salaries,” wrote Deleon.

Actions as simple as giving female workers extra attention to help them rise through the ranks could have a marked impact on gender diversity within an enterprise.

3. Look inward
All too often, company recruiters become too preoccupied with bringing in top female talent from the outside to see that there are viable candidates already on the enterprise’s payroll. In some cases, these professionals are ready to take a seat in the boardroom. In other situations, these individuals may have the potential to be C-suite material one day, but are not quite there yet. For the latter group of women, enterprises should consider investing in leadership training or putting together mentorship programs.

“When other high-potential females consider joining the organization, they will be more likely to visualize themselves succeeding there if other women have already risen to important roles in the company,” Deleon pointed out.

4. Step up the search
For companies that struggle more with finding female executive candidates than they do with cultivating the talent that already exists within their companies, Deleon advised casting a wider net. This is where turning to executive search consultants, asking employees for referrals, visiting women’s colleges and getting in touch with organizations dedicated to female professionals may be helpful. Enlisting the services of an executive search firm could prove particularly beneficial, as these organizations have the wherewithal to tap into well-researched and heavily networked pools of prospects.

About Caldwell Partners
Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 45 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.