Gender Diversity in Executive Management

Women still traditionally take charge when it comes to household shopping, and a new study by IIC Partners backs it up with numbers: Women account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases. While that’s not particularly compelling, a look at the boardroom at major companies reveals a stark contrast. From 1,270 business leaders surveyed, only one in four are female. Half of the companies said they expect to hire more women senior leaders in the future, and 61 percent claim that they feel gender diversity is important.

This gender disconnect has ramifications for both consumers and women climbing the corporate ladder. Sally Stetson, co-founding principal of Salveson Stetson Group Inc., shares insight on the issue based on two decades of work as an executive search consultant and multiple boardroom positions: She is currently on the Advisory Council of the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, and former President of the Board of Directors for the Forum of Executive Women.

Stetson spoke on the future of the boardroom, helping women break the current number trends, and the disconnect in consumer focus with Diversity Executive. Below are edited excerpts from the interview. Sally Stetson, Salveson Stetson Group

What’s the effect of this disconnect between women’s purchasing power and the executive management in consumer companies?

The disconnect makes companies look foolish and out of touch with their current and future customers. For example, if a baby products or apparel company have none or just one female board member, they come across as lacking a customer focus or orientation. Many times women are the decision makers on purchasing decisions for the household. As a result, it is extremely helpful to have that similar viewpoint and perspective on the board. A diverse board of women and men, as well as people of color, brings diverse thinking with the ability to put themselves in the shoes of their customers.

While around 60 percent of companies are saying that the gender issue is important to them, what’s a more tangible, productive way they can back up the claim?

If they are saying that adding women is important to them, the only way they can back up that assertion is by hiring strong and competent female leaders. If they speak about it but don’t deliver on it, it personally tarnishes their reputation as well as the reputation of the company. 

What can help get more women to the executive, boardroom level? Any advice for them?

Executive women need “champions” to encourage and ensure they get placed in front of the right decision makers. If the CEO and Board reinforce the importance and project a sense of urgency in adding more women within executive-level or board positions, it will happen. These individuals need to communicate that message repeatedly and demonstrate their commitment to doing so by intentionally recruiting and wooing female candidates. Having a pipeline of potential female candidates whom a CEO and senior leadership team nurtures and engages is a smart business practice.

For companies that have half or more of the boardroom as female, what edge does that give over those which don’t? 

A company with a diverse boardroom is a smart business decision as it allows for different perspectives and approaches to managing and growing the company. Having a homogenous board usually maintains the status quo as it ensures the company remains on the same path. Divergent thinking will shake up a board’s strategy for the company and bring new, creative ideas and perspectives to the table. 

According to the survey, 52 percent of companies expect to hire more women. Do you see these trends with low numbers of women in these positions turning around in the future? How skeptical are you of changes?

Based on a Pew research study, by 2012, the share of young women enrolled in college immediately after high school had increased to 71 percent, but it remained unchanged for young men, at 61 percent. As a result, there will be more educated women ready to join the workforce, and I am hopeful that there will be a talent pool readily available to transition into the workplace. I also believe there is a generation of fathers who now have daughters. They most likely will influence the need for companies to hire and promote capable women in the workforce.