Investment in women leaders reaps rewards

Sarah J. Fischer

In the 1950s, women accounted for less than 35 percent of the U.S. work force and were often were limited to such occupations as teachers, nurses and clerks.

The situation is far different today, when women represent half the work force and mothers constitute the primary wage earner or co-earner in almost 68 percent of families. Moreover, women have topped men in the population of college undergraduate students since the mid-1990s.

Still, the nonprofit research group Catalyst reports that women represent only:

  • 19 percent of partners in public accounting and law firms.
  • 16.6 percent of corporate board members.
  • And just 4.2 percent of chief executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies.

While there’s a slight upward trend in the number of women leaders, the overall figures remain low.

In terms of business leadership in 2009, women held 49 percent of the jobs in the U.S. and 50 percent of all managerial positions.

A 2006 report from the Department of Labor noted that women outnumber men in such mid-level occupations as accountants and auditors; budget analysts; educational administrators; financial managers; health services and medical managers; and property, real estate and social community service managers.

While women have made substantial progress at the middle-management level, statistics for the top management level tell a different story.

As baby boomers begin to retire in significant numbers, however, companies realize the importance of investing in women leadership to promote from the top pools of talent. If businesses are concerned at all about succession and the sustainability of operations, not to mention retaining talent, they recognize the importance of moving women into leadership roles. Companies should support a woman’s motivation to lead and also increase the likelihood others will recognize and encourage her efforts — even if she doesn’t look or behave like the current generation of senior executives.

The changing demographics of the U.S. workforce leave little choice other than to embrace diversity and allow for the evolution and flexibility of previously rigid ideologies to gain a competitive advantage. Research has shown that organizations with diverse leadership teams outperform those with homogenous leadership teams.

What can businesses do to mitigate this risk and shrink the gender gap at the top? The first step is to simply understand some of the barriers women face in climbing the ladder, including the need for balance between work and life and the lack of female role models and career guidance programs.

While balance between work and life isn’t an issue specific to women, women continue to bear the brunt of societal norms about caring for children and elderly parents and completing household duties. Companies must  embrace flexibility while at the same time realizing it’s a tricky concept. Ultimately, flexible work schedules evolve into flexible career paths and the realization one size doesn’t fit all.

Lack of female role models is an obvious hurdle when there are so few women at the top. Some up and comers simply believe they can’t aspire to these roles. This absence of women in top roles also results in fewer networking opportunities and sources of help and support in career advancement.

A shortage of career guidance isn’t simply about having quality mentors, though. Missing out on stretch assignments because of modified schedules, the inability to customize career paths and limited networking opportunities can lead to the perception women are less experienced than their male peers.

In fully recognizing and understanding these issues, businesses can devise strategies to help women advance. Of course, it’s far easier to conceptualize, talk about and develop policies than it is to implement policies that overcome what are often unintentional, yet deeply imbedded, biases.

Those companies that not only take a serious look at how to turn today’s talent into tomorrow’s leaders, but also take on the hard work of development will reap the rewards.