Today, women make up more than half of the national labor force. They earn almost 60 percent of all graduate degrees and 60 percent of master’s degrees.1 At S&P 500 companies, women make up 44 percent the overall workforce.2
But in the top ranks of the corporate world, it’s a different story. Women comprise only 21 percent of the board seats at those same S&P 500 companies, and only 6 percent are CEOs. In the legal field, 45 percent of associates are women but only 22 percent are partners.3 Women of color face even steeper challenges, holding only 4.7 percent of executive- or senior-level positions at S&P 500 companies.4 In 2017, after the departure of Ursula Burns as CEO of Xerox, not a single Fortune 500 company was led by an African American woman.5
These numbers might seem bleak, but when I started my career decades ago, the disparity was even greater. The good news: we are making progress! Nonetheless, we have a long way to go to achieve gender parity in corporate leadership.
The business case for more diverse executive leadership is clear. Diverse workforces are more innovative, and representation at executive levels promotes a more inclusive brand-image amid the war for great talent. Quite simply, if you believe that men and women are born with the same potential to lead, and organizations put mechanisms in place to ensure equal access to the mechanisms (i.e., critical experiences, networks, mentors/sponsors) that lead to senior leadership, then they will benefit from having inclusive leaders that represent the markets they serve.
Throughout my 17 years and holding five different roles working at ADP, I’ve witnessed what it takes to build a company supportive of talented female leaders. Intentional talent mobility, supportive managers, visibility to executive leadership are just a few of the enablers to ensuring advancement for female leaders. It’s in large part why ADP has just been named one of the Top Companies for Executive Women by the National Association of Female Executives (NAFE).
Based on my experience, here are some practical steps for companies to promote the inclusion of women in leadership.
Know Where You Stand and Set Goals
Building an inclusive culture is incredibly important for any company looking to promote women in leadership. It starts with having the right tone from the top, and also having practical measures in place to gauge employee sentiment of equitable practices and inclusiveness. An employee engagement survey that offers industry benchmarks is a good place to start. Understanding your workforce demographics is also critical, such as attrition and advancement rates, representation across levels and hiring patterns. Once you identify areas of opportunity, set improvement goals for your leadership team tied to compensation. Diversity progress need to be viewed as important as other business metrics. Accountability is the name of the game.
Make Your Benefits Count
One of the potential talent roadblocks to advancing women in leadership could lie in your company’s benefits strategy. We know that benefits play a large role in whether or not employees feel supported by their companies. We also know that women might need different types of benefits to feel supported in their positions, like flexible work, access to daycare, or parental benefits. Today, more companies are offering “parental leave”, not just maternity leave to signal the importance of both partners sharing responsibility. Companies should look at their holistic talent and benefits strategy to understand if they have a compelling benefits proposition that will attract and retain top female talent.
Walk the Talk
If you read just about any “About Us” page on a company’s website, you’re likely to see language about diversity and inclusion. In order to effectively capture the attention of talent in the marketplace, this can’t just be words on a page. What programs exist to specifically support women’s advancement? Are women leading major parts of your business and chief functional areas of your company? If not, this may signal to potential candidates that your company does not offer enough opportunity for upward mobility.
Intentionally Widen Your Lens
In 2003, the NFL established what is known as the Rooney Rule, a National Football League policy that required franchises to interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs. The rule was created after determining incidences of discrimination in the hiring and firing of coaches. The result was increased hiring of minority head coaches, some of whom went on to lead their teams to Super Bowl victories. The takeaway: without being intentional about having qualified diverse slates to choose from, you are unintentionally limiting great talent from advancing. Given the underrepresentation of women in executive leadership, companies should ensure that their talent acquisition and succession process actively identifies qualified female talent that can be considered for executive openings. To increase success, consider partnering high-potential women with senior executive sponsors, male or female, to mentor them and be advocates for their work.
Creating executive parity starts with opportunity. The opportunity to take on high profile assignments. The opportunity to attend networking events. The opportunity to lead teams of diverse colleagues. Women are ready for all of these opportunities and it’s the collective responsibility of all of us to ensure they start on an equal playing field.