Today is International Women's Day, a day to promote gender equality. In the developed world, women have come a long way toward a stronger leadership presence at the executive and board level but we still have a long way to go. The glass ceiling still exists and many women face barriers to attaining high ranking positions in business and politics.
The 2011 Catalyst Census on Women Board Directors shows that women currently hold just 14.5 percent of board seats in FP500 companies and 10.3 percent in public companies. Those numbers are dismal, but even more shocking is this statistic: nearly 40 percent of FP500 companies and over 46 percent of public FP500 companies have no women serving on their boards. Zero. None. Why is that?
Women and men can both experience similar business-related barriers (lack of management experience, a style that clashes with the organization), but women experience far more cultural and social barriers than men do. Gender-based stereotypes, exclusion from informal networks, family responsibilities and lack of role models all serve to undermine women's efforts to advance. Pushed down from above, pushed aside from the middle, pulled out by family obligations and with no female mentors to turn to for support, is it any wonder that women struggle to reach the top?
Until society is prepared to accept that a different style does not mean worse, recognize that women have much to bring to the table, and are willing to spread some of the social burden that women now carry to men, we will not progress to an inclusive workplace at all levels.
Fortunately, some women are already standing tall with the shards of the glass ceiling scattered beneath their feet. They are making efforts to promote gender equality and leadership roles for women both now and in the future.
Irene Rosenfeld is the CEO of Kraft Foods Company where women make up more than 35 percent of the company's management team. Rosenfeld believes women don't have to be "mini-men". "We have the opportunity to be role models and mentor others," says Rosenfeld. "Hang in there; we can help to reshape the environment on the job and outside." (link)
Indra Nooyi is CEO of PepsiCo. The company endorses the UN's Women's Empowerment Principles and believes "increasing support for women in our businesses is crucial, especially in developing countries." 33% of their board members and 31% of their executives are women, including the president of the Asia Pacific region and the president of their snacks business in China.
Last June, Anna Maria Chávez became CEO of the 100-year old Girl Scouts organization. Early in her tenure, Ms. Chávez commissioned a study of girls aged 8-17 to gain a better appreciation of their perceptions of leadership. The study was telling. Of the 1,001 girls surveyed, 90% believe there are more men than women in major leadership positions today, 60% believe that women can rise up in a company but will only rarely make it to the top, and 81% say the workplace could do a better job of meeting the needs of female workers. Let's not forget that this study was commissioned in 2011, not 1961.
The study enabled Ms. Chavez to launch a program for the Girl Scouts organization intent on transforming perceptions and creating balanced leadership - the equal representation of women in leadership positions in all sectors and levels of society - within one generation. It's an effort to remove the belief young girls have that the glass ceiling still exists.
It's disheartening that, despite advances in gender equality, the majority of these girls don't see the corporate world as friendly to women and, therefore, a place where they themselves belong. We already know that both companies and society win when business leaders are gender diverse.
A Catalyst report on corporate performance in Fortune 500 companies shows that companies with the highest number of women on their boards had a 53% higher return on equity, a 42% higher return on sales, and a 66% higher return on invested capital.
The same is true internationally. The McKinsey Women Matter study in 2010 showed that organizations with a higher proportion of women on their boards have 41% higher return on equity and 56% higher average earnings before interest and tax than the average company.
So what do we need to do to ensure that girls in the 13-17 year old age cohort believe that the glass ceiling has been shattered, swept up and tossed aside? We need to create a workplace that supports women's advancement to the top, one that supports them when they get there and one that recognizes and supports their outside obligations through initiatives like family-friendly workplaces. Men need to recognize the contributions that women bring to business, support them to ensure their full participation and women need to support and advocate for other women, too.
Gender equality is on its way to being realized, but the road ahead is a long and arduous one. It may already be too late for this generation of girls, but perhaps the next generation will be reading about it in our history books.
If you have any insights on specific changes that ought to occur, take the time to jot down your thoughts below.