When the "C" in C-Suite Stands for Clueless

In the rarified air of the senior executive ranks, men are under the impression that everything is hunky dory for women in corporate America and that they have a close to even chance of being promoted to senior positions. This is according to a recent survey by Bain & Company, a major management consulting firm.

The women surveyed within this same study are not nearly as optimistic. While both men and women believe new recruits have an equal chance at being promoted to junior ranks, their opinions diverge when the topic of senior management and executive promotions are discussed. Most men (66 percent) think that qualified men and women have an equal opportunity to be promoted to senior management, but only 30 percent of women feel the same way. According to one senior executive woman in the survey:

"The corporate world's ladder is set up for a man's biological clock, not a woman's. You achieve success climbing in your 20s, 30s and 40s -- but that's also when you're building a family. That dynamic needs to change."

Why is gender parity in corporations important? Are we women just harping up the wrong tree? Let's take a look at the numbers.

  • First of all, who is the customer? She is probably your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter and yourself. Women spend more than 6 trillion dollars per year in the U.S. As a group, women dwarf - by a factor of ten - the buying power of all other demographics. Women make 85 percent of all purchasing decisions in U.S. families.* So if you are a corporation, like Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark or General Mills, that supplies a good number of the items on grocery and drug store shelves, wouldn't it make sense to have some women running the show? Or at least have half of the major corporate decision makers be women?

  • Second, gender parity is a strategic imperative, and for more reasons than just the customer. According to several studies, companies with more women in management (more than 38 percent) experience lower share price decline, higher return on investment, and higher total return to shareholders. Furthermore, companies with more women in senior management or on boards of directors are more profitable, have higher firm value, and higher earnings quality.
  • Third, given that women are now half the workforce in the United States, and with the upcoming retirement of the bulk of the baby boom generation, companies can't continue to do business the way they have been. There simply aren't enough white males to go around. A five percent difference in attrition between men and women over 10 years results in twice the number of men as women in senior ranks.
  • If women are such important constituents, why do companies systematically relegate them to lower class status? I have previously cited a number of reasons, but according to the Bain survey, most companies' leaders actually think that they are doing a good job at increasing gender diversity. By contrast, only one in four employees feel their companies are focusing on gender parity as a strategic imperative. While most employees say their companies have implemented gender diversity initiatives, such as flexible work arrangements, mentorship programs and family leave, only 8 percent feel that their firms have successfully linked diversity goals to financial incentives. In addition, few firms actually measure diversity or gender parity. You can't change what you don't measure.

    Tellingly, if most of the senior managers are men, and those men think that both men and women have an equal shot at the top - then the leadership team is probably clueless about the real issues facing competent and ambitious women. As with all strategic initiatives, nothing succeeds without the focus, support and commitment of senior management. Until we get more women and sharp, tuned-in men into the senior management ranks, gender parity in corporations will be a long way away.

    * Marti Barletta, Marketing to Women: How to Increase Your Share of the World's Largest Market. 2006, Dearborn Trade Publishing.