Women Leaders: Looking into the Elephant's Eyes

Co-authored by Sheila Repeta

There is an issue that has been looming on the horizon for a while now, it is the proverbial "elephant in the room" that everyone sees, but many do not want to discuss. It's been a long enough time since we spotted the elephant. In fact it has been so long that some might believe it has safely left the room. What is this issue? It's the "woman problem". This problem is two-fold. First is the lack of visible female leaders in organizations both big and small organizations, and yes, even the government. Second is the discrepancy in pay between men and women performing the same work.

Sheila: Just writing this article alone demonstrates the delicate nature of the "woman issue". If I write too firmly, forcefully or brazenly about this topic, I come across as a man-hating, feminist tyrant. If I write too gently without any passion, it will get lost in the myriad of articles already out there dipping their toe in the water to address the issue. Even talking about this issue in an office or in the boardroom can be polarizing and uncomfortable at best.

Jim: In 1992, I read an article by Korn/Ferry that declared the glass ceiling for women in organizations had officially cracked. In response, I wrote an Op Ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle stating that they were wrong - the glass ceiling had not cracked and that in fact, 20 years from now we would be dealing with the same issue. As a compensation expert, I had access to data that proved my point and proved the Korn/Ferry assertion erroneous. And today, I will make the same comment - the illusion of the glass ceiling cracking is limited to a very few women or candidly, people of diversity. This is wrong. And it has been wrong in the past. And it will be wrong in the future. We must fix this.

About 20 years ago, publications began declaring the "woman problem" was over. A highly publicized study released by Korn/Ferry declared the glass ceiling "cracked" for women. The study explained women were making their way into leadership in the corporate boardroom in high enough numbers that equity should be reached in the near future. The report stated:

"With women today accounting for half of the graduates of our nation's graduate business schools, we . . . expect the number of women placements into senior executive positions to increase dramatically over the next 10 years. There isn't any job that's closed to women today--the 'glass ceiling' has cracked."

That was 1992, and here we are in 2015, and now more women than men are graduating from said business schools, but that "crack" in the ceiling has not broken and merely a steady drip of women are seeping through. A quick look at the numbers tells the sordid story. Women in CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies from the 1990s until now have gone from 0% to a pithy and unrepresentative 5.2 percent.

With a highly publicized presidential election around the corner and female candidates coming out of the woodwork, it may feel like significant progress has been made, but the actual numbers of women representatives in leadership tell a dismal story. A quick look at the numbers of women in key leadership and governance positions paints a clear picture of the lack of representation at the highest levels of leadership in America:
• U.S. Senate - 20% women
• U.S. House - 19.3% women
• State Legislatures - 24% women
• Women Governor's - 10% women (on the downward trend - peaked at 18% around 2004)
• CEO's of Fortune 500 Companies - 5.2% women
• Executive Officers of Fortune 500 companies - 14.6% women
• Fortune 500 Board Members - 16.9% women.

Many have argued that women just do not have the same skills and competencies to be successful in high-level leadership positions. Pew's research team tackled this assertion and asked the general public about specific characteristics needed to be successful in political and business leadership positions (i.e. working out compromises, being honest & ethical, negotiating profitable deals, etc.). In 8 of the 9 categories assessed, results indicated that there was no difference between male and females in demonstrating those competencies, or, in some cases women were perceived as being better at demonstrating those characteristics than their male counterparts. Of the characteristics surveyed, the only competency that women scored less effective in was being willing to take risks.

So what is holding women back from leadership positions? According to a 2015 Pew Research study, the top reasons women are perceived to not be in leadership positions:
• 43% of Americans (both men and women) believe women are held to higher standards,
• 43% feel that America is not ready to hire/elect female leaders and,
• 23% believe family responsibilities do not allow for enough time to be successful in these roles.

While conversations on the issue are starting to elevate (looking at you Meryl Streep and Hilary Clinton), perhaps the reason no one wants to talk about the "woman issue" is because the problem is so deep and so entrenched that organizations -- and even governments -- feel helpless to do anything in order to make progress.

So just how can organizations help address this deeply rooted problem? They need to get more qualified females into leadership positions to bring their mindset, ideas, and perspectives into governance and policy making to ensure decisions are made and policies built considering all perspectives. But how does an organization determine the quality of its female leadership pipeline?

In this two-part series, we will explore how to look at your People Dimension -- environment, culture, development and rewards. First, let's look at the environment.


The environment can be thought of as the magnet for organizations -- the thing that draws people to their organization and keeps them there. The environment is why people show up. This goes beyond pool tables in the lobby and decadent lunches served to employees for free, and really gets at what matters most to individuals within the organization.

As of the first quarter in 2015, the Millennials make up a majority of the U.S. workforce. And these Millennial women in the workforce have very specific ideas about what they are looking for in an organization. This generation puts a huge emphasis on work-life balance. Some organizations have heeded this change by making drastic changes. For instance -- migrating to a virtual work environment. For virtual organizations with women in their childbearing and rearing years, it allows women who have children to be both an employee and a mother. They have the flexibility to be both, and while minimizing an impact on both their home life and careers.

Understanding this option does not work for all organizations or industries, there are other environmental options to explore. Consider the floor plan or layout of your facility. Many leaders have closed "window" type offices open cubicles located near one another around the periphery of the building, with lower levels of leadership and staff in cubicles in the middle. If women are making up a minority of the leadership (meaning they are not physically located near leaders), they are literally separated from the key decision makers and conversations about these decisions. The bifurcation speaks volumes in the physical layout of the space. Does your organization create a layout that invites the opportunity for an elevated conversation among underrepresented groups?

Stay tuned for the next post where we look at the People Dimension of culture, development, and rewards.

Sheila Repeta is a Senior Consultant at FutureSense, Inc. Sheila joined FutureSense in January of 2011. She earned her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Communication from the University of Illinois. She has worked with several Fortune 500 companies working in HR and Training and Development. In addition to that work, she has taught communication and organizational development in various colleges and universities for nearly 10 years. Helping organizations align their business strategy with their people and processes, spending time with her 3 sons, and running melts her butter every day.

Jim Finkelstein is the President and CEO of FutureSense, Inc. Jim is a student of people and is constantly searching for ways to help understand their uniqueness. He has dedicated his career to helping organizations improve their effectiveness through strategy and execution of simple and proven solutions. He believes in getting stuff done.www.futuresense.com. Jim is the author of Fuse: Making Sense of the New Cogenerational Workplace (Greenleaf Book Group, 2011). He is an Adjunct Faculty member at Sonoma State University in their Executive MBA program. You can follow him on Twitter @futuresense