Women in Leadership: CEO Sponsorship is Essential

Originally Published by PwC.

Picture this: Mary and Tom both graduate at the same time.

They’ve been on parallel tracks: same university, identical GPA, comparable internships. Both enter the corporate world. And both ascend the ranks toward leadership. Along the way, both rate highly on performance evaluations.

Yet, Tom is a CEO today while Mary is stalled in middle management. Despite the evidence that female leadership is profitableinnovative and socially responsible.

Why is that? What happened along the way? And what can we do about it?

That’s what we set out to explore at PwC in a new analysis about female leadership in the apparel industry.

We recognize this isn’t a new problem. What we want to underscore however, is its stubborn persistence. And while we may not have all the answers, we do want to advance the conversation about the role of women in corporate leadership.

Although women comprise half the workforce in the United States, they remain vastly underrepresented at the highest executive levels: A scant 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

Barriers to advancement

While our analysis is specific to apparel, the common, often interlocking, themes we uncovered apply more widely across the board:

  • Lack of CEO championship

While diversity training is commonplace, it’s typically the purview of the HR department with inadequate commitment to outcomes.

  • Unconscious bias

About half of all men and a third of all women said women were well represented in companies with merely 10% female leadership.

  • Institutional blind spots

The mindset that leads to the familiar contributes to bias in hiring, promotions and workplace treatment.

  • Succession issues

Men have historically been admitted to executive training programs in higher numbers than women.

  • Lack of structural support

Women who take a break from career for family often have to step back when they return — placing the C-suite that much further out of reach.

Companies spend as much as $8 billion on diversity training; however, many assign diversity decisions to human resource departments without any real commitment from the CEO or any meaningful metrics to measure success.

While diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives have worked to raise awareness of the needfor inclusiveness, bolder actions are necessary to effect faster, more transformational change —the kind of lasting change that is long overdue. At PwC, D&I is not just integral to our culture, it’s also a robust team of people who ensure that D&I is integrated into every single process.

Breaking down barriers

Here are some proven recommendations for lasting impact:

  • Evangelize the CEO

At PwC, our CEO, Tim Ryan, is a vocal D&I champion. He believes so strongly in the importance of inclusion that he co-launched CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, a coalition of more than 650 CEOs who’ve pledged to make measurable D&I progress.

  • Check unconscious bias

We’re all prone to implicit bias that impedes D&I progress. Training to counter these types of blind spots allows us to challenge assumptions, enhance objectivity and overcome stereotypes.

  • End opportunity discrimination

Women may not always receive the same opportunities as men in equal measure, leading to opportunity discrimination. Stem this tide by reviewing current recruitment and hiring policies and committing to gender diversity in hiring, succession planning and promotions.

  • Balance the board

A recent California law is likely to have nationwide impact: It requires public companies in the state to have at least one woman on their board by the end of 2019 and more in subsequent years.

  • Investigate anomalies

Are women leaving at a higher rate than men? Are they not being promoted in similar numbers? Employee surveys, confidential individual interviews, focus groups and exit interviews can all serve to investigate these anomalies.

  • Support nonlinear career progression

Flexible work arrangements and nontraditional career paths without repercussions or stigma — including adjusting workloads, paring down travel and scaling back responsibilities — can help address attrition as women juggle career and family.

  • Encourage male participation in family-friendly policies

When men avail themselves of options such as family leave and flexible work arrangements, negative perceptions that these policies are designed solely to accommodate women no longer prevail.

  • Measure results

Accelerate the pace of change by replacing good intentions and vague goals with structural support that includes specific goals and diversity targets at every level.

The trend line toward gender parity is clear; however, progress has been slow. Bolder actions, championed by CEOs leading with passion and sincerity, can accelerate gender balance, a business imperative.

I speak to a lot of millennial women in the workplace. My wish for them is that someday soon, they won’t have to talk about these issues anymore because gender parity will become a non-issue. Female business leaders will be as commonplace as their male counterparts. But we have to work to make it happen.