What Can Be Done To Improve Female Representation In Senior Positions?

How can companies address the lack of women in senior positions?


The gender gap in senior positions is undeniable. While they hold around 52% of all professional-level jobs, American women lag substantially behind men when it comes to representation in leadership positions. According to a Catalyst survey, while female employees are 44% of the overall S&P 500 labor force and 36% of first- or mid-level officials and managers in those companies, they only make up 25% of executive- and senior-level officials and managers, and hold just 20% of board seats. Most tellingly, just 6% of CEOs in the study were women, a vast, unavoidable inequality.

Yet, the 'Women on Boards' study, performed by MSCI, found that "companies in the MSCI World Index with strong female leadership generated a Return on Equity of 10.1% per year versus 7.4% for those without." Clearly, the business world is crying out for more female leaders.

So what can be done to improve female representation in senior positions? Ahead of our Women In Strategy summit in New York on February 27 & 28, we spoke with four of our speakers, past and present, about how they believe companies can improve their policies to help cultivate gender diversity in high-up roles.

"It’s about balance and equality," says Sam Fay, SVP Brand Strategy at Guiness World Records. "At GWR we are lucky enough to have a 50:50 male/female leadership team, but I know many companies who are not that progressive. There is also a massive difference between industries too, advertising and media can seem a million miles away from engineering and fishing, for example."

"Whilst I may have signed to support 50:50 representation for MP’s for UK government, I don’t think quotas are the answer, I think it’s a mind shift that’s required globally."

"As a woman, we need to support each other, and stop competing," argues Belen Pamukoff, Brand Director at Heineken. "We need to mentor other women and create a constant communication with each other to build a network of support. We need to participate in events like the Women in Strategy Summit and other events that lift women up and nurture the feminine side of business. I often notice that we as women will try to mimic the masculine energy that is dominant in the workplace, but we need to resist that urge and just be ourselves. Corporations and the world in general needs more natural feminine energy."

"Recognize that they are a political, economic, and human force, not just a profit-making machine," advises Laura Freebairn-Smith, who teaches leadership at Yale's Drama School, and diversity and team building in the Executive MBA program at Yale's School of Management. "Companies can embody values and make decisions about how they (companies) exist and behave in the world so that both women and men can have balanced lives and lead."

"Companies must be far more intentional about succession planning and development, and the talent teams in those companies must view that inclusiveness as a business imperative," says Joanne Rencher, Chief Business and Talent Officer, Girl Scouts of the USA. When it is seen as such from an economic perspective, a leadership bench without female representation would be unacceptable. "Further, women helping women could occur more strategically through networks laser-focused on real skill development and preparation for ‘what’s next.’"

She adds that "cultivating interest in historically male-dominated fields, such as STEM, must start very early. Research shows that girls are keenly interested in STEM and excel at it. We can change the landscape. Organizations such as the Girl Scouts are already doing that! STEM programs at the Girl Scouts, help girls become better problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and inspirational leaders. Through app creation or video game development, the possibilities are countless. That’s the path to strong, confident female leaders who can bust through glass ceilings and windows. So, yes, I’m completely optimistic. As for pay transparency and inequality, that takes a village. Literally. Companies must be willing to be honest and transparent about gaps and have the stomach and pocketbook to make the economic fixes to the disparity. I’m grateful for firms entering the leadership space who are focused on partnering with companies to close gender pay gaps. The firm, SameWorks, is a great example of this."

Continue the debate and see Rencher and Freebairn-Smith speak at Women in Strategy Summit in New York on February 27 & 28. 

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