2014 Trends: #7 Have Perceptions of Gender and Leadership Turned a Corner?

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Our second post this week highlights the seventh trend from our whitepaper on the ethics and compliance trends to watch in 2014 (previous trends can be viewed here and here). We thought we’d pose this as a question because of the relatively quick shift in business culture around this topic.

#7 Have Perceptions of Gender and Leadership Turned a Corner?

The spirited debate over Sheryl Sandberg’s and Nell Sovell’s book Lean in – Women, Work and the Will to Lead was clear evidence last year that gender and corporate leadership still remain contentious issues.

While the debate on strategies and leadership styles continued in 2013, unfortunately progress toward breaking the glass ceiling seems to have stalled. Less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a woman at the helm, and only 14 percent of executive officer positions at these companies are held by women. At the highest levels of the American workforce, less than 20 percent of the top leadership jobs are held by women overall, according to a new national study, Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in the United States.

The similar lack of progress in Board representation has led California, the city of Philadelphia, the European Commission, Norway, India and others to increase pressure on corporations to add more women to boards. It’s likely that such government actions will become more common in 2014.

On the positive side, there was some evidence that 2013 may have been the year that perceptions of women leaders began to turn a corner. We note that stories about newsmakers including Janet Yellin at the U.S. Federal Reserve, Christine Lagarde at the IMF, Mary Jo White at the SEC, as well as CEOs Mary Barra at GM, Meg Whitman at HP, Virginia Rometty at IBM, Patricia Woertz at ADM and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo were, for the most part, about their policy decisions, experience, mistakes and achievements – and not about their gender. It’s a subtle change, but one worth noting.

Also of note, while women hold only one in eight of the executive and board positions in California’s top 400 public companies, an annual UC Davis study shows incremental progress -- the percentage of women in these top decision-making posts has increased, and the number of companies with no women executives and board directors at all is dropping.

Looking ahead, another development to watch is the already large and growing percentage of women in ethics officer positions. According to the Society for Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) the percentage of their members who are women is approaching 60 percent. This could have interesting ramifications for our profession and is an area worth studying. We encourage our readers to work with industry associations and think tanks to research this trend and its consequences.

Some questions to consider:

  • Are there discernible differences between men and women’s approach to business ethics, especially with respect to management style, collaboration and communication?
  • Is there evidence that the ethics office has become the new HR – a safe place to park female high-achievers, while keeping them off the CEO track?
  • Is there pay equity between men and women who hold comparable ethics and compliance positions? Is their clout also comparable as measured by title or level in the organization, to whom they report and who comprises their in-house network?
  • Are there any identifiable differences between how employees view the ethics and compliance function if it is headed by a man or a woman? Are the findings the same in all industries? In all countries?