Minding and Mindful of the Women’s Leadership Gap

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By Kristen Lee, Associate, Menlo Park

Gender equality in the executive suite. Sheryl Sandberg may have opened up the conversation with Lean In in early 2013, but the topic has remained alive with Nasty Gal CEO Sophia Amoruso’s bestselling #GirlBoss and recent headlines from Paul Graham, Google and others on the inclusion of women in tech. While not all tech/executive management roles are C-level, it’s clear that there remains a gender imbalance in the corporate hierarchy no matter how vigorous and plentiful the conversations we’re having.

While much has been published about the balance among those who land the C-suite jobs of their dreams, it got me wondering if the final results are indicative of the overall process. Maybe there are more women under consideration for senior roles than some of this publishing suggests. As a team member of an executive search firm based in San Francisco, I am uniquely situated to see not only who ultimately fills these roles, but also who’s being considered. Could it be that there is more of gender parity in the candidate selection process up until an offer gets made?

I was curious and hopeful. To find out, I took a quick look through the projects we’ve worked on this year (post what I’ll call The Lean In Effect) to compare the gender balance of actual hires against the shortlist of finalists we’ve put up for executive level roles. It is important to note that this sample is intentionally small – just one year of work – and certainly not representative of executive suites at large or as revealing as a 5 year average might be, but I wanted quick data tied to a specific time in which many of these books, articles and comments on women in the C-suite reached a peak over the past year. The results are interesting. And not quite what I expected.

KL Blog Graph 1

HR roles showed the most equity, with a distinctive lean towards female candidates (supporting my assumption going in about human capital roles). Unexpectedly, IT functions had a fairly high percentage of women on the shortlist as well, as did positions in Legal and Marketing. Overall though, the finalist pools were overwhelmingly male dominated. Breaking the numbers down as a whole, female finalists made up about 13% of the pool, and 16% of the placed candidate slots.


KL Blog Graph 2

These numbers appear to be roughly in line with the market; statistics published by American Progress in March 2014 showed that women make up 14.6% of executive officers in the Fortune 500 and less than 9% of top management positions overall.

The big question, and one that many people are trying to answer definitively, is what’s at the root of the disparity?

It obviously starts much earlier than the application/interview process for a specific job: a combination of roles, experiences and interpersonal relationships influence placements and advancements. This is borne out by a Catalyst report published in 2012, which said that women are less likely to get the type of high profile opportunities and “hot jobs” that lead to advancement up the ranks (and eventually into the C suite).

And when the experience isn’t quite there, I’ve encountered situations where an offer is made to a woman, but the title changes. Instead of being given the position of CMO, she’s now VP of Marketing. With the deflated title, she is often also earning less supporting the widely quoted 78 cent statistic (women make 78 cents on every dollar a man earns).

Rather than ignoring this issue or accepting it as a status quo, I have to share that in my day-to-day experience recruiting technology executives, there is a strong and pressing call for female leaders. We and our clients at Calibre One are trying to change the imbalance in spite of some significant challenges. It is not uncommon to encounter a company with an all-male executive team that desperately wants to add an experienced woman to their ranks. There is a group that knows this best; it’s comprised of the most senior female executives who fought their way to the top, and their experience and positions are hard-earned. When the call goes out to find top-tier female talent, their phones ring first, and they are called so often by recruiters like me that I am amazed they can see to their day jobs. In small pockets, strong female leadership exists, but there are not enough of them. We need more women and we need them now.

So what can we do? What should those of us responsible for finding candidates (either internally or at search firms) be doing? Internally, it’s been shown that formal career development programs can have a positive impact on gender parity in management. Externally, I think an important first step is to be cognizant of the issue: recognizing the importance of balance (gender or otherwise) in executive positions and being aware of the balance of candidates put forth.

What’s your take?