By Ritch Eich
Women continue to be marginalized in the business community.
Whether it is Hollywood studios and their paucity of female directors, the tech industry and its alarming exodus of frustrated women, or the stifling male fraternity culture that dominates Wall Street, the “boys club” is a tough clique to break up.
The vast majority of CEOs responding to a 2011 McKinsey & Co. survey noted that hiring women is essential to “getting the best brains.” That sounds pretty obvious; however, meaningful change remains agonizingly slow. As of June 2014, only 24 Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO, or 4.8 percent. That’s up from 20 companies on the previous year’s list, but still a tiny fraction.
The McKinsey survey authors concluded: “Of all the forces that hold women back, none are as powerful as entrenched beliefs. While companies have worked hard to eliminate overt discrimination, women still face the pernicious force of mindsets that limit opportunity.”
Excelling in business requires leveraging the talents of everyone involved. Having worked in a variety of industries, I’ve been fortunate to work with many incredibly talented and accomplished women including:
Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, the first and founding chancellor of UC Merced. Chancellor Tomlinson-Keasey, who despite being faced with countless obstacles created the first American research university in the 21st Century on grazing land in California’s Central Valley.
Dr. Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, senior vice president of Eli Lilly and Co., former CEO of Riley Hospital for Children and former CEO of the University of Michigan Health System. Pescovitz took sensible risks that enabled her team to flourish and brought creativity, charm and grounded optimism to every challenge.
Cleopatra Vaughns, civic leader, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency chair, first female board member and first female chair of the San Francisco Visitors and Conference Bureau, Blue Shield of California community relations head and president of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. Vaughns has devoted incalculable hours after work and on weekends to make the Bay Area safer and a better place to live, work and visit. She was a true “bridge builder” and widely respected in her community.
These women are exemplary role models. Their indefatigable drive, intelligence and adaptability have inspired me and countless others. They welcomed tough assignments and delivered results, often in the face of adversity.
Real leaders commit all available resources to creating a positive organizational climate with zero tolerance for discriminatory behavior. Real leaders require their teams to establish systems and cultures that reward women and men equally, thereby encouraging women to focus on contributing, instead of fighting against out-of-date biases. Real leaders understand that expertise and contributions are what delivers results.
Here are five critical steps leaders can take to increase the role and value of women in their organizations:
1. Make the commitment: It sounds basic, but chief executives need to understand — and accept — that their organization’s bottom line will be enhanced by including women in policy-shaping forums and decisions.
2. Make the commitment count: Tie executive compensation to the active inclusion and advancement of women. Simply meeting a quota is not enough (and, in fact, is counterproductive).
3. Encourage and mentor women: More women take on the combined role of breadwinner and caregiver than men, and organizations need to accommodate those roles or they will ultimately suffer the loss of great talent. Women want tough assignments, and in my experience, are often better than men when it comes to collaborating.
4. Check male egos at the door: Consciously or unconsciously, the old boys’ network is alive and well. Organizations must adopt a zero-tolerance policy against discrimination. Instead of celebrating the behavior that still exists on Wall Street, it needs to be wiped out.
5. Recognize women’s unique contributions: Most of the women I know and have worked with have been better at multi-tasking than men (myself included), and reach consensus faster and with less contention than most men. It’s no coincidence that more female U.S. Senators have co-sponsored bills and reached across the aisle to get things done than their male counterparts.
Change is long overdue. Plenty of women are up to the task. The old boys club needs some new blood — and maybe a female club president.
• Ritch Eich is a management consultant and the author of two books on leadership. He is the former head of public relations for Blue Shield of California.