Report: Gender balance still a token issue for many companies


Marillyn Hewson, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, speaks during an interview in Washington, D.C. on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014. Hewson is one of just nine female CEOs among the 300 companies studied in a new report on gender balance in corporate leadership. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Most studies that examine how many women are at the top either look at the gender diversity of corporate boards or calculate overall numbers in the executive suite. Catalyst, for instance, reported that women made up 14.6 percent of senior officers among the Fortune 500 and 8.1 percent of these companies' top earners.

But a recent study shared Monday on Harvard Business Review's site looks at the makeup of those senior teams — and names names.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, the CEO of 20-first, a consulting firm on gender issues, put together her "Global Gender Balance Scorecard," which examines the prevalence of women on the executive committees of the 100 largest companies in three places: the United States, Europe and Asia. Rather than examining how many women are on boards — a number that is ticking up thanks to more attention and the threat of quotas in some regions — Wittenberg-Cox says it's critical to look at how many women are executive officers, whether that be the CEO or the people reporting directly to him or her.

"Those are the people they're grooming to run things," she says. "It's a much better mirror to what's happening inside the companies, to the policies and the talent development process" than looking at the board.

Wittenberg-Cox's gender scorecard breaks companies down into six types. They are:

  • "Asleep" (run exclusively by men)
  • "Token" (where one gender — almost always women — makes up less than 15 percent of the executive officer team)
  • "Starting smart" (where there's less than 15 percent of one gender, but the minority gender is represented in operational roles)
  • "Progressing" (where there is a makeup of between 15 and 24 percent of the minority gender)
  • "Critical mass" (where there is between 25 and 40 percent of the minority gender)
  • "Balanced" (the rare companies where each gender makes up at least 40 percent of the team)

In the United States, just two companies in the Fortune 100 — Target and TIAA-CREF — currently earn the "balanced" designation. Another 23 are awarded for having "critical mass," while another 31 are "progressing." The report found that 60 percent of companies had at least two women on the senior management team.

But 25 U.S. companies, including Dell and Goldman Sachs, were still at the "token" level. And 13, including Exxon, remained "asleep" with no women reporting to the CEO. Since Wittenberg-Cox's firm examined only the CEO or his or her direct reports, some companies could still have senior leaders who are women or may have added women to the senior ranks more recently. The data for the survey is based on the top Fortune 100 companies in each region, drawn from the rankings published in July 2013 and the companies' Web sites as of March 2014.

The picture is even more concerning in Europe and Asia. In Europe, just one company, Lufthansa, earns the "balanced" designation, while no companies in Asia do. Thirty-eight of the top 100 in Europe and 71 in Asia have no women at all on their executive officer teams. And among the top 300 companies studied, only nine had female CEOs at the time, the study reports.

There is one area in which the United States lags behind, however. Just 35 percent of U.S. women in executive roles are in operational positions (responsible for a business's bottom line); the rest are in support ones (such as human resources, marketing, or legal). In Europe, women show up slightly more often in these critical operational jobs.

Either way, there's room for improvement, Wittenberg-Cox says. "If all companies are doing is putting token women into support jobs, they don't really believe in the business benefits of a gender balanced workforce."

Read also:

The science of getting women on boards

Where is the female executive?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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