When Female Executives Become Head of Women’s Issues

Gender diversity has an impact on business performance. The “Bottom Line” reports from Catalyst demonstrate that organizations with more women in senior leadership enjoy higher returns to shareholders, on equity and on invested capital. McKinsey & Co. research findings are similar, with its “Women Matter” reports touting markedly higher return on equity and improved operating results for global companies with gender-diverse executive committees.

Yet, this same McKinsey research also shows that while the majority of men and women recognize gender diversity as a performance driver, the implementation of key measures and impactful initiatives remains limited; a small percentage of companies identify gender diversity as a top 10 priority. Some assert the “problem” has been solved and no initiatives are required — Bain & Co. in its “Gender Parity Up the Corporate Ladder” work said 66 percent of men believe that women have equal opportunity to be promoted to leadership; less than a third of women agreed.

So, what is happening in organizations and board rooms today? Is gender diversity a top-tier issue? In many organizations, one senior female leader leads the charge and maintains focus on this issue. These women understand the compelling business rationale to grow female talent, know the criticality of aligning the organization to the customer and employee base, and as a result have become the de facto “chief of women’s issues.” But this role can be a dubious honor. While it creates an opportunity to leave a legacy of positive change, the moniker can trivialize the issue or marginalize the executive.

Impacting Business Outcomes
High-ranking women focus on this issue for all the right reasons. Senior executives are drawn to that which creates competitive advantage, and diversity leaders know the case for business impact is clear based on the aforementioned statistics. Further, in looking to the future, more than half of all college graduates are women. Forward-thinking organizations understand the importance of attracting and retaining this critical percentage of the talent pool.

Savvy executives are well-versed in bringing women’s thoughts and ideas to the decision-making table, specifically ensuring the female voice of the client base has a seat. It is also critical for the decision-making team to reflect the demographics of the employee base. Senior leaders often fail to notice the negative effect of young, female employees surveying their leadership team and finding no one who resembles themselves or who they aspire to be. Young female professionals cannot help but factor this view of the executive suite into their career plans and make career decisions based on this view.

Mistakes Organizations Make
When there are few women at the top, the chief woman may be called upon to handle issues more suited for junior-level leaders. She is seen as a female executive as opposed to an executive who happens to be female. For example, an executive woman might be called in to address inappropriate attire on a young female employee because the male manager is uncomfortable having a straightforward management conversation.

“If that is the way the company culture works, that diminishes the capacity of everyone in that scenario,” said Allan DeNiro, senior vice president and chief people officer at Haverty Furniture Cos. Inc. in a July 2011 edition of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “It doesn’t seem to me to be the best use of talent. The aspiring woman leaves the conversation and says, ‘Oh my gosh, I just ruined my career, because the only thing that the most powerful woman in the company knows about me is that this one time I dressed inappropriately.’”

Organizations also can mistakenly expect a single female leader to speak for her entire gender — a request that is both inappropriate and misguided. “Oftentimes a man’s viewpoint is looked upon as an individual contribution, yet when a woman shares her perspective, she is seen to be speaking for the entire female gender,” said Debbie Sessions, partner at the public accounting firm Porter Keadle Moore LLC.

Perhaps most frustrating for senior female leaders is that organizations frequently ask these already time-challenged leaders to personally oversee development for top female talent. Many senior women wish they could mentor and foster the growth of more women, but they cannot mentor all of the young, talented women in the organization who ask for their guidance. There are rarely enough senior women to go around relative to the demands for their time, insights and advice.

Challenges for the ‘Chief Woman’
Forward-thinking, motivated women know that subtleties of language can have significant impact on the thoughts, ideas and actions taken in organizations. Senior women attuned to the impact of language often find themselves in coachable moments when men or women with no malicious intent speak or act in a way that is subtly, or overtly, inappropriate.

For example, say a female business owner in a meeting of peer CEOs hears a man describe his female business partner as a nice lady. In a quiet moment, the woman could find a way to share with the man why he may want to position his partner as a powerful businesswoman as opposed to a nice lady. While there is no overt harm in this description, it misses an opportunity for him to elevate both his partner and women in general with more positive language.

The challenge in confronting any situation like this is to avoid being viewed in the negative, and worse yet, avoiding a situation where the woman offering advice is labeled as the gender police. A badly handled confrontation can result in both trivializing the issue and labeling the woman, yet a well-handled conversation can have significant impact. The gentleman in the example wasn’t aware of the language he had used, and likely would appreciate the feedback, recognizing the benefit of repositioning his words.

Labeling or branding women based on their raising issues related to gender is a particular challenge common to many environments. In December, while speaking to a group of global dignitaries and key political leaders at Georgetown University, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed this issue. After sharing inspirational and powerful stories of women around the world positively impacting societies, she said, “Now I know some of you may be thinking to yourself, ‘Well, there she goes again … always talk[ing] about women, and why should I or anyone else really care?’” Even the secretary of state felt compelled to explain that her message was intended to address global stability and societies, and was not “a woman’s issue.”

Women in corporate life know this same concern — that “there she goes again” statements will be directed toward them; that their advocacy will detract from their ability to be viewed as equal to their peers; and that it will diminish a focus on moving women forward to make the company more successful.

There are ways to get around these mentions.

Focus on strategic initiatives. Women and their organizations can position the moniker “chief woman” as a positive where gender diversity is elevated to key business initiative status, and leaders’ talents are used in appropriate ways. Leveraging senior female executives’ leadership capabilities and presence can create meaningful change. They are well-positioned to lead creation of initiatives on gender issues, setting the strategy, engaging emerging talent and lending their insights to overarching and sustainable approaches. When C-level executives work on C-level issues, there is no space to trivialize either the issue or the effort.

Engage in programmatic development. While logistically they cannot mentor all women, senior female leaders can and should be matched with high-potential talent and serve in mentoring roles where appropriate. Their time should be reserved for those high-impact mentoring partnerships that can develop next-generation leadership. DeNiro of Havertys said, “Mentoring works best when there is long-term relationship-building behind it — not just episodic counseling … A mentor and mentee need to develop their relationship over time so that they have multiple reference points.”

In addition to their own involvement, senior women can advocate for mentoring opportunities for women — by male and female senior leadership — throughout the organization. Developing key talent via a programmatic approach increases emerging women’s exposure to a diverse audience, thereby increasing their mobility and opportunities.

While mentoring women is critically important, so is sponsoring. A mentor, whether male or female, is a resource when he or she is in the room with a mentee, but the sponsor’s key role — again, regardless of gender — is to advocate when the individual is not in the room but important decisions are being made.

“Senior leaders need to be aware of the talented and capable women throughout the organization,” said Sharon James Jordan, senior vice president of operations and systems for Chartis Aerospace Insurance Services Inc. “When there are discussions on succession planning and new project assignments, it is critical we advocate for the high-potential women currently demonstrating high levels of ambition and making strategic and profitable contributions.”

Position strategically. Organizations also benefit by encouraging their senior female talent to take on external community and industry leadership positions. Leadership roles within civic and trade organizations can help position women and their organizations in a positive light and demonstrate and lend their talents to important causes.

“Senior women from our firm are consistently praised by community leaders for taking action and spearheading creative initiatives to help those less fortunate,” said Kristin Hannah, senior manager and director of business performance services for KPMG LLP. “Their outreach, dedication and compassion have inspired women throughout our firm to follow in their footsteps and seek opportunities for community leadership.”

Women and men bring different perspectives to their companies, and each person views the world through his or her own filters, seeing and reacting to different things. Forward-thinking organizations avoid allowing a “chief of women’s issues” to be trivialized when she advocates, sponsors, speaks up or strategizes.

No single individual, male or female, can sustain the critical initiatives required to promote and maintain gender diversity in an organization. Senior female leaders who are the lead advocates deserve leadership team support as well as recognition for spearheading initiatives around what should be a strategic objective designed to improve organizational performance.

If the position description c`alled for a senior executive to take on a core strategic objective, to lead efforts that positioned the organization’s talent, to mentor and sponsor others, and to lead high-profile community initiatives, the organization’s top-tier talent would vie for the title “chief of women’s issues.”

Helene G. Lollis is president of Pathbuilders. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.