Gender Gap: Breaking the Top Management Boundary

By Dana Goldblatt, DBA

In my first two blog posts for this series, I made the case for gender parity in top management and the individual behaviors and decisions preventing women from reaching executive-level positions. This week, we'll look at boundaries created by organizations.

Organizational Boundaries

Individual barriers and actions are arguably predicated to a large degree on boundaries that are controlled by organizations through their workplace culture and policies and practices (formal and informal). Findings from my research study suggest that organizational boundaries are the most detrimental of the three categories:

Masculine/patriarchal corporate culture– Workplace culture barriers include male social norms, communication and leadership styles, an inflexible ‘anytime, anywhere’ work model, tokenism (i.e., less than 30% women in a group), lack of female corporate role models/leaders, exclusion of women from senior-level networks and sponsorships, and tolerance of sexual harassment.1

“In the work environment, the rules favor the rule-makers. The communication styles favor the majority. The majority happen to be men. It’s not that men are bad. It’s nothing like that. There’s a cultural legacy. We model leadership with a male paint brush – with a male backdrop with a set of male biased behaviors because the male style is dominant.” (Female Board Director and former SVP)

The CEO and board of directors need to:

  • Make gender inclusion and parity both a core value and strategic objective of the organization.
  • Make a compelling case for change and role model desired attitudes and behaviors.
  • Train the entire workforce on conscious and unconscious (a.k.a., implicit) gender bias and how to quickly address it when it occurs.
  • Utilize gender-neutral leadership and work models that meet the strategic needs of the organization.
  • Formalize a senior-level sponsorship program to promote women.
  • Adopt a zero-tolerance policy and end non-disclosure agreement and mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment and assault.
  • Conduct an annual workplace culture survey and publically release the findings and plan to close gaps.

“A lot of it is really by your immediate supervisor and by the culture that’s created in a company…the culture and the top of the organization. So if the supporting CEOs, whether men or women, value that work-life balance…it trickles down through the organization…” (Female CEO)

“It's a company that actually lives that motto [of “inclusion”] day-to-day and the leadership really believes in it globally…diversity, family, treating people [“fairly and with integrity”], recognizing challenges that people have outside of work and trying to be accommodating so that they can deliver the most on the job...” (Male Board Director – large company with two former female CEOs and more than 30% women in senior management)

Gender-biased talent and succession management programs – Organizations hire women at lower levels and promote them less and at slower rates than men, pay them lower wages, and provide them with fewer benefits and less training and leadership development opportunities (e.g., ‘high-potential’ programs, line and international assignments).2

And when organizations do provide support, it is often not well implemented, or utilized because of cultural norms.3 The Chief Human Resources Officer, with CEO sponsorship, needs to:

  • Comprehensively assess and change talent and succession management policies and practices to:

o     Mitigate gender bias (e.g., require that 50% of recruiters and candidate pools be female, extend search timeframes and use creative approaches to find female candidates, review resumes for qualifications and the “story of achievement” and ignore career gaps and the chronological order, do not ask for salary history, and conduct performance reviews more frequently and with more objective criteria, gender-neutral feedback options and a broader array of reviewers). 4

o   Ensure the needs, wants and motivations of female employees are met at all levels (e.g., limit meetings to work hours and provide career and logistical flexibility, extended maternity/paternity leave, leave transition programs/services, childcare and services for sick children and the ability to effect change, have their ability recognized and earn a higher salary). 5

  • Develop, communicate, measure and actively manage an HR strategy that fully integrates talent and succession management programs and aligns them with the organization’s values and strategy.
  • Give managers the information, tools and responsibility to drive gender inclusion and parity. 6
  • Provide transparency by conducting an annual gender inclusion and parity survey and audit and publically releasing the findings as well as the organization’s Equal Employment Opportunity Report (a.k.a., EEO-1), pay data and a plan to close all gender gaps identified.

“Damn it…If you are not presenting a balanced pool, do not send a pool! Don’t bother. Don’t call me to a meeting if all of them are white males…I would rather the meeting be 1 or 2 weeks later when you have a balanced pool.” (Male CEO & Board Director)

Lack of top management commitment to gender inclusion and parity –Yet, a study found that only one-quarter (24%) of large companies had executive committees with more than 20% women despite over half (52%) of them having implemented more than 25 gender diversity actions like the ones outlined. It attributed their lack of effectiveness to gender diversity not being a top priority of the CEO and thus, not having the CEO’s full commitment or that of senior and middle management. 7

  • The CEO, with board of director sponsorship, must inspire and drive holistic and sustainable change by:

o  Championing the change - Set gender inclusion and parity as a top 3 strategic priority with specific objectives, goals/targets and timeframes, publically explain the plan to achieve it, and deploy role models and change agents throughout the organization.

o  ‘Walking the talk’ - Align the organization with the values and strategy, measure gender gaps in participation rates and outcomes (e.g., management positions, new hires, leadership development, promotions, compensation, performance ratings), actively manage the change and hold everyone accountable for achieving and maintaining the change by linking individual performance objectives and compensation to the goals/targets.

o  Being transparent, persistent and “comfortable with discomfort” – Publically communicate progress on a regular basis and be prepared to have difficult conversations about gender stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination and to stay with the change program for the long-term as studies suggest it will take 2-3 years to have an impact.

  • If the CEO fails to achieve a gender inclusive culture and parity in top management, the board of directors needs to replace the CEO, potentially with an external hire.

“I’m here to drive a lot of change very quickly…When you drive change, people are unhappy. There is noise…I have told them [the board] the noise is coming. Here’s where the noise will come from. Here’s what the noise will be. It’ll be interesting when that noise gets loud and is generated from some of the guys that they play golf with, what will happen.” (Female CEO)

“I don’t have an answer [to the lack of women in top management] other than you need to be aware and you need to have people of responsibility who are aware who give a damn. I don’t know how you legislate giving a damn and I don’t know how you teach giving a damn. I know how to expect giving a damn…You expect it and you inspect it…’What is the game plan, what are those metrics?’” (Male CEO & Board Director)

About Dana Goldblatt

Dr. Goldblatt is a speaker at WE18, the Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers, October 18-20, 2018 in Minneapolis, MN. She helps organizations achieve sustainable transformational change by setting and communicating strategic objectives, aligning organization structure, culture and talent with strategy and actively measuring and managing strategic performance. Prior to leading the Strategy Execution Group, she was V.P. of Research and Advisory Services at Palladium and a Principal in its Strategy Consulting practice. Dr. Goldblatt has assisted more than 75 private, public and social sector U.S. and international organizations in a wide variety of industries and has conducted research and published articles on best and leading practices in strategy, CEO successions and women in top management. She believes that gender parity is a strategic imperative and is committed to achieving it through education, advocacy and action.

1Sandrine Devillard and others, Women Matter 2016: Reinventing the Workplace to Unlock the Potential of Gender Diversity, 2016.
Grant Thornton, Women in Business: Beyond Policy to Progress, 2018.
Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva, ‘Why Men Still Get More Promotions than Women’, Harvard Business Review, 88.9 (2010), 80–126.
PwC, Time to Talk: What Has to Change for Women at Work, 2018.
The Rockefeller Foundation, Women in Leadership: Why It Matters, 2016.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation(New York: Basic Books, 1977).
Thomas and others.
2Devillard and others, 2016.
Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva
Ann Howard and Richard S. Wellins, Holding Women Back: Troubling Discoveries — and Best Practices for Helping Female Leaders Succeed, DDI(Bridgeville, PA, 2009).
Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva Thomas and others.
3Julie Coffman, Orit Gadiesh, and Wendy Miller, The Great Disappearing Act: Gender Parity up the Corporate Ladder, Fortune(Boston, 2010).
Devillard and others, 2016.
Grant Thornton, 2018.
4Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, ‘How Gender Bias Corrupts Performance Reviews, and What to Do About It’, Harvard Business Review, 2017.
Lisa Unwin, ‘It’s Time to Change Your Strategy on Hiring Women’, Strategy + Business Magazine, 2017.
5Desvaux and others, 2017.
Grant Thornton, Women in Business: Turning Promise into Action, 2016.
Thomas and others.
6Thomas and others.
7Devillard and others, 2016.
8Grant Thornton, 2018.

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