Online car-auction company Copart recently added a woman to its board, marking the first time ever that every firm in the S&P 500 has at least one female board director. Milestones like this may make it seem as though we’re making progress, but not so fast! According to a report from Korn Ferry, more than 80% of S&P 500 firms had at least one woman on the board by the year 2000. It took nearly a generation to get the rest of the way. If that is progress, then there’s still a real problem.
It’s often said that the first step in solving a problem is “admitting that you have one.” We have a problem, and it’s us, men! I believe that men fall into three categories: (1) men who show ambivalence about women in leadership; (2) men who are either consciously or unconsciously (or both!) opposed to any intentional efforts for creating more opportunities for women leaders; and, (3) men who are advocates for driving stronger pipelines. The third is the most important category and is woefully weak in its numbers. It’s time that men are at the forefront for the change that is needed. There has to be dramatic, intentional action, and men can be that change and drive that action.
To emphasize one of the points above, a European-based company polled their global workforce to judge the pulse of the organization — and specifically men — about possible initiatives to create a more diverse workforce. It produced this amazing statistic: 68% of the men in their company believed that women had the same opportunities as men, and that the company did not need to do anything specific to drive a stronger pipeline of women leaders. The real data from this company? Eleven percent of its more than 50,000-person workforce was made up of women, and only 4% of its top executive team were women. The statistics from the survey bear the real issue, but the perception of men company wide was completely different!
Another example I’ve come across for how the issue of women in leadership is viewed differently between men and women happened in a conversation a couple of years ago. I was chatting with two high-level women leaders, discussing the current state of women in leadership, and a male executive happened to walk up, catching the latter half of our conversation. He very innocently stated, “Well, these things take time, you know.” One of the women immediately shouted, “You men have had 60 years to fix this problem and you haven’t done it!” I’m sure my eyes were wide as I looked over at the poor man who thought he was making a relevant comment only to be taken out with a swift rebuttal. But, she was right and it’s a painful realization: We men are part of the problem and not enough of the solution.
It’s a painful realization: We men are part of the problem and not enough of the solution.
If men are part of the problem, then what are some solutions?
It starts with the executive team and, specifically, a Chairperson or CEO addressing the issue in their own company and obtaining real data within their organization to determine a starting point for growth and change. As mentioned in my earlier example, the company in question conducted a detailed analysis of data at all levels of the organization, polled employees and, despite the overwhelming negative sentiment of men, developed a strategy to change its culture and promote programs that focused on developing more women leaders.
We men must also acknowledge and seek to change our biases. There are not enough of us who are completely open to driving and promoting women leaders in our organizations. Our intentional and unintentional biases drive decisions where our first instinct, when looking for someone to promote, is to suggest a man. There is a mountain of data from Zenger Folkman in “A Study in Leadership: Women Do It Better Than Men” that says the issue isn’t one of competence, with plenty of research to back that up. The fact is, most women are equally as skilled, if not more so, at the necessary competencies as men.
Finally, another major thing that men can do is become advocates and sponsors for women in their organizations. One of the key pillars my company teaches women in our leadership programs is the concept of “Corporate Visibility.” If you are a male executive reading this, how many women leaders are you advocating for in your organization when you’re in a meeting and someone says, “Do we have anyone who could do that role?” Just as companies have to get intentional about driving this change, men have to do the same. We have to be unafraid of being advocates for women in our organizations and be able to resist the status quo and the “go along to get along” mentality — or even the “bro club” I witnessed recently at one company — that keeps us doing the same thing, yet wanting different results.
Men have to step up, be held accountable, and drive the change in companies and organizations. It’s no longer adequate to remain silent and do nothing. Women are ready, willing and able to be leaders if they are given an equal chance.
It’s time … we’ve had 60 years and we’re still behind the curve!