Women’s Leadership in a Bad Economy

Yesterday, I spoke to a Fortune 500 company that, in the mid-1990s, was slammed with a high-profile class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination against 45,000 female employees. The suit said the company denied them equal pay, management opportunities, promotions and desirable job assignments. In fact, the company had a track record of sticking women in dead-end jobs. Some bosses reportedly demanded sexual favors from employees. In the end, the company settled for more than $80 million.

Back in the day, no one would ever have heard the name of that company and “women’s leadership” spoken in the same breath. Was it a great event? Sure. But the CEO wasn’t there, nor were any of the C-level executives who control the future of women’s leadership there.

Is Corporate America doing enough to advance the cause of women’s leadership? NO. Some companies are doing great things. I see it all the time when I speak at leadership events. But, there are many instances when the male leadership at the company supports these efforts in order to check off some duty on their to-do list. It’s high-profile lip service.

I’ve been at some events where the CEO speaks, then stays for the entire day (or two) of sessions. And I’ve been at other events where the CEO comes in and talks for 20 minutes, then apologizes because he got to rush out to a meeting. I know they are busy. But, if they are supporting women’s leadership in an effort to boost retention and truly advance women in the organization, they’ve got to be there. Some have made an extraordinary commitment to women’s leadership – like the people I’ve met at KPMG, Accenture, Coca-Cola, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Microsoft, Kraft, Ford Motor Co., among others.

But, Catalyst reports that we still don’t have access to the power positions. Women hold fewer than 15 percent of the seats on Fortune 500 corporate boards and only 15 women are CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. Let me twist that around. Men hold 97 percent of the top CEO jobs and 85 percent of the top board positions. That’s where we want women in leadership, but it ain’t happening.

I’ve heard from many women lamenting that the top brass seems more inclined to turn to the tried-and-true (men) during the downturn, rather than reach out for new ideas from women in the ranks. How can we advance ourselves in a crazy climate like this? By pushing harder than we ever have. By networking and making friendships with the people who matter. We’ve come this far because we’ve only begun to learn to network and propel one another. Now it is time to leverage our friendships and brainstorm ideas and strategies that can propel our companies.

Don’t share small talk. Share ideas. Contribute. Inspire others to contribute. Lead. Work like hell and make sure those who can advance your career know what you are doing. Help other women. It doesn’t matter who gets “there” first. Someone needs to get there to help bring you along.

We’re moving along. We’ve got to work harder to do it faster. And, we’ve got to do it together.


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