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A push to get more women into the top ranks of management

Kate Cohen (left) worked with Amy Appleyard, SVP of Global Inside Sales, at Carbon Black in Waltham.
Kate Cohen (left) worked with Amy Appleyard, SVP of Global Inside Sales, at Carbon Black in Waltham. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Companies have been talking up their commitment to gender equity for years. Yet when it comes to female leadership, not much has changed.

Just 10 percent of the top executive positions in the 1,500 largest publicly traded companies in the country are held by women, according to Pew Research.

Recently, however, companies have started taking concrete steps to boost the ranks of women in management, going far beyond the vague promises of unconscious-bias training and mentorship programs.

They are signing public pledges to interview women for every high-level position. Others are making an increase in female leadership a factor in employee bonuses. Some obsessively track male-to-female ratios department by department — and make adjustments when the numbers get out of whack.

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“You make something part of a process, it normalizes it,” said Sandra O’Sullivan, chief people officer at the Waltham cybersecurity firm Carbon Black.

Last summer, Carbon Black signed the ParityPledge, an initiative launched in 2017 by the nonprofit Parity.org, which has commitments from nearly 400 companies to interview at least one qualified woman for every opening at the vice president level or above.

Carbon Black took the pledge further, extending it to lower-level manager jobs and to people of color as well as women, requiring that at least two such candidates make it to the interview stage for each of these openings. Its intake form for recruiters contains a box that gets checked when a job requires a woman or person of color to get to the interview stage.

Carbon Black is also downplaying referrals from current workers, O’Sullivan said, because, in a field dominated by white men, their professional networks are not necessarily diverse.

Amy Appleyard found out about the Parity Pledge when Carbon Black reached out to her about a job and she started reading up on the company.

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Appleyard, then at the tech company LogMeIn, was intrigued. She thought, “I wonder if I’m that one woman?” (Carbon Black declined to say if other women were interviewed for the job). The pledge itself wasn’t discussed during the interview process, but Appleyard, who eventually got the job running the global inside sales team, said knowing that gender equity mattered was important to her.

And because she assumes the company would not have hired her if she weren’t qualified, being part of the ParityPledge doesn’t bother her.

“If I happen to get this shot because I am a woman, that’s neither here nor there for me,” she said.

Women actually get promoted more quickly than men, but lose ground as they progress through the management ranks, according to a new report by the ADP Research Institute, based on payroll data from 13 million employees. Women make up 44 percent of managers at the lowest level, but drop to 23 percent four grades up, at the executive management level, and just 15 percent at the highest level — a decline ADP researchers attribute to women’s family obligations as well as to a cultural bias against promoting women.

Interest is growing in using systemic changes to increase the ranks of female leaders, including by major firms such as the investment bank Goldman Sachs, which pledged in March that half of all new analysts and entry-level employees would be women. The consulting giant Accenture previously announced a goal to have a workforce with a 50-50 gender balance by 2025, with women making up a quarter of its managing directors by 2020.

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On Wednesday, Fidelity Investments launched the Women’s Leadership Fund, which invests in companies that have either one-third women board members or a woman in senior management, or that meet gender diversity initiatives. The Massachusetts Legislature is also considering a bill that would require companies with 100 or more employees to report the races and genders of people in senior management.

“To empower women to move up in their careers, transparency is key,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said during a hearing on the bill last week.

It’s long been known that it’s good for the bottom line to have a diverse range of viewpoints, and that women are highly capable of being in charge.

And while progress has been demonstrated, more work needs to be done in several sectors, some say. More companies need to pursue deeply rooted structural changes that could lead to more high-ranking women, said Jodi Detjen, a Suffolk University management professor who runs a gender equity consulting firm. For many, she said, commitments to increase female leadership consist of, say, sending employees to the Massachusetts Conference for Women. Instead, firms should be taking a more strategic approach, such as revamping performance reviews and tracking promotions by gender, she said.

Companies that don’t make a serious commitment will soon be struggling to attract younger employees, Detjen said.

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“Companies are saying yes, yes, yes, we want parity; yes, yes, yes, we want women at the top, but when you see where they’re actually investing the money, it’s not in the systemic processes,” she said. “I think there’s a low level of awareness of what it actually requires to make these changes.”

Tara Salinas, a business ethics professor at the University of San Diego, agreed most companies are not treating gender equity like a business problem.

“There’s a lot of attention being paid, which is great, but a lot of that attention is more talk than anything,” she said.

At MassMutual, the Springfield-based life insurance company where more than half of the 7,500-person workforce is female, nearly 41 percent of its leaders are women, said Lorie Valle-Yanez, head of diversity and inclusion. As part of its goal to get to a 50-50 leadership balance by 2030, MassMutual joined Paradigm for Parity , a worldwide coalition created by female business leaders in 2016. It encourages companies to follow a five-point plan to achieve gender parity by 2030.

MassMutual also recently started using diversity metrics to measure its performance and determine annual bonuses. “It essentially holds everyone accountable,” Valle-Yanez said.

Knowing the “tech ecosystem” is mostly white men, the Boston software startup Salsify has been tracking female executives. There were none when the company was launched in 2012; now, there are six, a third of the leadership team. Its total share of female employees has grown to 37 percent.

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But the firm is expanding, to 300 employees from 200 in the past year, and this has led to some setbacks.

Facing a tight deadline to hire engineers last year, the share of women in the department dipped, director of talent Allison Churilla said: “It’s really easy for those numbers to slip, even if you just take your focus off of it momentarily.”


Material from wire services was used in this report. Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com.