Diversify the talent pipeline – The business argument for advancing women

Can a leaky corporate talent pipeline undermine business success?

Consider these facts:

  • 85 percent of all brand purchases are made by women yet only 3 percent of creative directors at advertising agencies are women.
  • Senior women (age 50 and older) control a net worth of $19 trillion and own more than three-fourths of the nation’s financial wealth.
  • Over the next decade, women will control two thirds of consumer wealth in the U.S. and be the beneficiaries of the largest wealth transference in our country’s history. Estimates range from $12 trillion to $40 trillion.
  • High-net-worth women account for 39 percent of the country’s top wealth earners.
  • More than 1.3 million women professionals and executives earn in excess of $100,000 annually.
  • Nearly 29 percent of all businesses in the U.S. are women-owned.

Women control major purchases::

  • 93 percent of OTC pharmaceuticals (which represents over half of the U.S. GDP).
  • 93 percent of food.
  • 92 percent of vacations.
  • 91 percent of new homes.
  • 89 percent of bank accounts.
  • 80 percent of health care.
  • 65 percent of new cars.

Stephanie Holland, Holland & Holland Advertising, states that women process information and make purchasing decisions differently than men:

  • 91 percent of women feel that advertisers don’t understand them.
  • 84 percent feel misunderstood by investment marketers.
  • 74 percent feel misunderstood by automotive marketers.
  • 66 percent feel misunderstood by health care marketers.
  • 59 percent feel misunderstood by food marketers.

Women play a powerful role in making major purchase decisions. Wouldn’t it make good business sense to demographically align your workforce to reflect the market your company serves?

Catalyst, a U.S. nonprofit focused on expanding opportunities for women in business, found a 26 percent difference in return on invested capital (ROIC) between top-quartile companies with 19 to 44 percent women board representation and bottom quartile companies with zero women directors in their 2011 study, 2011 Women’s Earnings and Income.

According to the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE), stock in the 12 Fortune 500 companies with women CEOs rose 50 percent on average in 2009 compared to the S&P 500 at a 25 percent average rise.

A report by Hedge Fund Research Inc. found that between January 2000 and May 2009 women-run hedge funds returned 9 percent gains compared to 5.8 percent for those run by men.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), between 1970 and 2009 women progressed from holding 37 percent of all jobs to 48 percent, adding almost 38 million more women to the workforce. Without these additional women, our economy would be 25 percent smaller today – an amount equal to the combined GDP of Illinois, California and New York.

And companies are recruiting more women. According to Sylvia Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, “Women now represent 53 percent of new hires.”

BUT statistics show that there is considerable work to be done on this front.

Women are still not being paid equal to men. Catalyst’s 2011 study shows that women across the board, regardless of education levels, consistently earn less than men.

A joint study with the AFL-CIO and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research demonstrated that if women were paid equal to men, poverty rates would be cut in half. Just stop and think about the implications of that statement.

Another major concern is that women are not advancing into leadership positions … and the barriers are not competency- or capability-related.

Catalyst estimates that only 26 percent of women rise to vice president or senior executive levels; the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies remains stuck between 2 – 3 percent.

The 2011 McKinsey study, Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in the U.S. Economy, points out that 32 percent of women entering the workforce want to pursue a leadership position. Once they advance to middle managers, that number increases to 51 percent but the opportunities to advance become significantly less than for men for reasons that might surprise you.

Contrary to public opinion, the list of barriers affecting a women’s decision not to pursue a top leadership position does not include a lack of self-confidence or the ability to manage family commitments or even desire to advance. Rather, women do not advance because they lack role models, are excluded from informal networks (where they can make important connections to gain strategic insights about the company), and unlike their male counterparts, do you have an upper management sponsor.

“Women are often evaluated for promotion based on performance, whereas men are evaluated on potential,” cites Joanna Barsh, organizational practice director, McKinsey & Company. “Creating the conditions to unlock the full potential of women and achieve our economic goals is a complex and difficult challenge.”

Women possess an innate desire to connect with and collaborate with others; creating a sense of community is part of their DNA. Working without female peers or having someone who can help navigate the strategic and political side of advancing contributes to a deeper sense of isolation.

Barsh states that, “While companies have worked hard to eliminate overt discrimination, women still face the pernicious force of mindsets that limit opportunity. Managers – male and female – continue to take viable female candidates out of the running often on the assumption that they can’t handle certain jobs.”

Women who fear that advancement means energy-draining meetings or intense corporate politics may opt to remain in positions where they make a meaningful difference and work closely with colleagues.

Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Gloria Steinem present at the sold-out Women’s Leadership Conference sponsored by UWM School of Continuing Education. As a pioneer in the advancement of equality for woman, she said that it’s been only 40 years since this initiative started and that we may have another 60 before we really get there.

She shared her list of the top 10 things we could all do to support women’s success. Three that stand out for me personally include:

  1. Always bring others with you. Mentor someone. Invite a friend, colleague, young woman to a conference, to lunch, to have tea. Isolation is a contributing factor to stagnation.
  2. Reverse the golden rule. Treat ourselves the way we treat others. Women are trained to care for and treat others better than we treat ourselves. That needs to change. It’s only when we are self-full that we can truly care for and support others.
  3. Listen. Women have an advantage over others in that we’ve been trained to listen differently. Veterans returning from war are far more likely to heal faster when they have someone who is willing to be present and listen to them. Take time to listen to young women. Listen to their story. Answer their questions. When we own our truths we can transfer that reality into the real world.

At the conference I was seated next to Pat Van Alyea, who had seen Steinem back in the early ’70s and has kept a copy of the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine. Van Alyea recalls that there were about 1,000 women at Mecca Hall and when Steinem walked in from the back of the auditorium, she was greeted with a standing ovation. “Why do you think that happened?” I asked. She replied, “Because Gloria gave us permission just to be. We weren’t Mrs. ‘Somebody’… she helped us to see ourselves as individuals. She gave us permission to speak our truths. When we left that day, we felt that we could move heaven and earth and felt an obligation to tell others so we immediately got on the phone and called our friends.”

After Steinem spoke this time, I asked Van Alyea what messages she was taking away. “The workplace is difficult. It’s easy to attack your co-workers because the pressure can be intense. We need more mentors to help bring others along. And that the young women today know how to collaborate with each other. It’s going to still be a big fight but they are up to it. There’s strength and safety in numbers.”

Looking around that room, a sea of 500 women strong, I too have hope that we as business leaders will follow the facts and make smart decisions.

Supporting the advancement of women in the workplace isn’t some form of reverse discrimination; rather it’s just good business.

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