Taking the Lead: Male CEOs Must Help Close the Gender Gap

Group of business executives having informal meeting in office
Group of business executives having informal meeting in office

There is only one way we will have more women in leadership positions in business: Male CEOs must step up to the plate and make it happen. This is a simple, powerful idea that has been getting more play recently, most notably at Davos this winter where executives from 10 major companies signed on to the UN Women's HeForShe initiative that seeks to mobilize men in the fight for gender parity.

Why men? The most obvious reason is that there are so many more of us in leadership positions--96 percent of S&P 500 CEOs. We can set expectations in our workplaces. We can challenge and enable women to take the lead. And, just as importantly, while we as corporate stewards have generally done an admirable job of combating obvious gender bias, the task now is to stamp out lingering, unconscious attitudes that prevent us from fully unlocking the potential of women in our workforce.

Why now? Leaving aside the fact that it's the right thing to do, we as CEOs must care about this issue. What is a carrot now--the statistical fact that more gender-diverse corporate boards have increased success in the marketplace and may do better when it comes to recruiting top talent and making decisions--could soon become a stick. As the studies pile up, shareholders will have every reason to question why we aren't doing more to get women's voices and expertise into top-level decision-making.

Take a couple of examples:

A recent study by McKinsey Global Institute found that successfully advancing women's equality around the world could add $12 trillion (equal to the current GDP of Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom) to the global economy by 2025. In addition, echoing numerous studies that show the current advantage enjoyed by companies with women in leadership positions, the Peterson Institute for International Economics this year noted that for profitable firms a move from no female leaders to 30 percent representation is associated with a 15 percent increase in net revenue margin.

As someone with four older sisters, a wife, three daughters and a granddaughter, I am personally used to being surrounded by brilliant women. But I'm keenly aware on their behalf that we have reached a plateau in women rising to leadership positions at work. According to Catalyst, women make up 45 percent of the workforce in S&P 500 companies--so far, so good. But the numbers thin out very quickly as you go up the leadership pyramid. Only about 4 percent of CEOs in these companies are women and the pipeline behind them is discouragingly empty.

With all the gains made by women, we as CEOs--and especially as male CEOs--need to find levers to aggressively take gender parity to the next level--for the good of our companies and our shareholders.

Here's where we can begin:

  • Create a culture of honesty. Leaders must foster a transparent work environment where people feel comfortable talking about issues that need to be addressed and improvements that can be made--in products, services--and, just as importantly, in the workplace. There is perhaps no better way to uncover the kind of problems or patterns that keep women from being hired, retained and promoted. I am forever grateful--if still appalled--that a top woman confided to me many years ago that she'd hid her pregnancy at the office for fear it would hold her back at work. Her admission was eye-opening to me. It made me determined to be sure that fewer women would feel this way. It's time to put old practices--and such fears--to rest once and for all.

  • Stamp out unconscious bias. Leaders need to acknowledge and confront internal biases that may be preventing change and encourage their managers to do the same. The fact is there are still people who harbor antiquated and inaccurate attitudes about women in the workplace. Conversations that used to happen openly still go on behind closed doors. Even well-meaning men--and women--can harbor unexamined prejudices. I've certainly heard remarks over the years. CEOs must do what they can to stamp this out--including taking a step back and examining their own feelings and potential bias.
  • Grow exceptional talent. Many companies focus on recruitment as a way to bring more women into management, but the recruitment piece is only one piece of the puzzle. It's important to take the time and energy to retain and advance those who have already made a decision to be part of a company. Training and networking groups can help. However, always keep in mind that not giving the proper attention to development defeats the purpose of any effective recruiting program.
  • Sometimes, too, CEOs need to take the time themselves to step up as mentors and note habits that might be holding someone back. For instance, I recently noticed that an executive had a habit of falling silent in meetings. I asked: "What happened to all the great ideas you had when we talked one on one?" That prompted her to start speaking up more. We immediately had much more dynamic, productive discussions.

  • Celebrate diversity of all kinds. Who wants to wear a mask or act like someone else all day? Leaders should create the kind of environment where everyone can thrive, no matter their background or gender or family situation or sexual orientation. I want everyone in our talent pool to feel the freedom to be themselves at work, without reservation or apology. That kind of environment not only leads to more tolerance and opportunity, but it boosts productivity because workers aren't expending emotional energy covering up their true selves--which can be exhausting. Not least of all it makes work a heck of a lot more fun.
  • We should absolutely celebrate all the work we've done in the 50 years since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited workplace discrimination. But there's more to do. It's up to men to help make sure it doesn't take another 50 years for more--lots more--women to take the lead at top companies.