At a time when women in Massachusetts are making significant inroads into positions of power and influence in the political sphere, a perplexing obstacle to gender equity in the corporate arena remains — a stubborn glass ceiling at the top.
While women have slowly but surely moved up the ladder to roles that qualify them to be chief executive officers, they appear to be stymied in taking the final step. A new research report from the Eos Foundation’s Women’s Power Gap found that among the largest 75 public companies in Massachusetts, only six CEOs are women — a mere 8 percent. This is despite the fact that women hold 20 percent of the jobs that have traditionally been considered the last steppingstone to the corner office — presidents, chief operating officers, and division heads. Simply put, women’s representation is cut by more than half from the number two to number one slot. Clearly, this is not merely a pipeline problem: A meaningful number of women are eager to take the next step — yet are stopped in their tracks.
One likely explanation is unconscious biases on the part of CEO search and selection committees that tilt heavily in favor of hiring someone who looks, acts, and behaves in ways that society still associates with a powerful leader — qualities still more likely to be perceived in a man.
In our research, people who’ve served on selection committees reported that, in choosing a chief executive, they often consider such factors as gravitas and executive presence. They weigh an individual’s “potential,” which one study found is more likely to be favorably perceived in men—even if women are more qualified for jobs. Decision makers look for candidates who come across as decisive, confident and commanding, which are inarguably important considerations. But could it be that those characteristics are more readily perceived in an individual who conforms to a traditional notion of what a top executive looks like—i.e, a man?
Corporate CEOs have outsized power, influence, and visibility in our country and consequently, it is essential that their ranks represent the full diversity of the population. For decades, corporations have been approaching gender diversity through training programs, many of which are not focused on women’s strengths as leaders. These approaches have worked to push a handful of women over institutional walls one by one, but to reach full inclusion of women among CEOs, it is essential to dismantle the walls entirely and to appreciate that having leaders with different styles and perspectives will make businesses stronger.
To be sure, companies need to further widen the pipeline of potential leaders. One foundational step is for them to collect disaggregated and intersectional leadership data, disclose it publicly, and create annual benchmarks and goals to hold leaders accountable, tying compensation to achieving them. They can also increase the pool of potential CEOs by formalizing sponsorship programs that encourage women and people of color to move into jobs that include profit and loss responsibility, which is considered necessary to become a CEO. (Currently, too many women are tracked into human resources and marketing, which do not typically provide a path to the number one spot.)
But they also need to go further: Corporate boards need to recognize — and root out — any implicit bias that’s influencing their CEO selection process, opening their minds to the fact that women make excellent leaders. The face of power is not limited to that of a tall man in a dark blue suit.
Some Massachusetts companies are making these changes. Vertex Pharmaceuticals, for example, has adopted an approach known as “bias interrupters.” Designed to mitigate any subconscious bias in hiring, management, and promotions, it trains people to be aware of — and to question — any stereotyping that might creep into company processes. It establishes specific and objective candidate criteria, reducing the reliance on gut feelings and other intangibles. Such tactics serve as a good model for what other companies can and should do.
If we hope to break that final glass ceiling, it is imperative that boards widen the lens on what leadership looks like — and to do so without delay. After all, there is no more powerful way to demonstrate a genuine commitment to gender equity than by moving more women into the CEO roles they’ve worked toward — and are more than qualified to achieve.
Andrea Silbert is president of the Eos Foundation.