The Buck Stops with CEOs When it Comes to Women at the Top

Forget quotas and so-called “realistic” targets for gender diversity at Executive Committee (ExCo) level. Let’s be absolutely clear: what we are aiming for is a 50/50 split. Why? Well, it’s not rocket science! That is the gender split in the general population, therefore that should be the gender split on any executive committee. Anywhere in the world.

And I’m not talking about a fudged 50/50 made up by women for the most part sitting in the typically functional roles, with the men in the P&L roles. Nope. That won’t do. An equal split in the P&L positions too, please.

Once we have created that 50/50 gender split at ExCo level, the rest of the diversity and inclusion spectrum will naturally become the primary focus. And progress will speed up.

Over the last two and a half years, I have spoken to hundreds of senior women, conducted detailed interviews with 120 WeQual finalists from companies all over the world, and spoken to hundreds of CEOs and their HR and Diversity and Inclusion leaders, as founder of WeQual.

So, where are we today worldwide?

Well, probably the most progressive companies are in the UK, which is ahead of the game when it comes to gender equality on its executive committees. Elsewhere, when it comes to equality for women at the top, it is a different story. The US talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk.

Meanwhile, in Australia, there is a really positive attitude towards gender equality, but their traditionally conservative society is still way behind.

Talking to business leaders in India, I get a sense of compassion for the cause. There is a genuine appetite for change, but there is a real knowledge gap there. They want to learn how to change but don’t know exactly where they should be looking for role models.

Wherever you are in the world, the biggest companies are all pretty much in the same boat – and they are all trying to solve the problem of equality at the top, in isolation.

Everyone needs to understand that there is no silver bullet – there is no hard and fast rule or correct answer to this problem. We need to learn from each other’s experiences – both positive and negative. There just isn’t enough collaboration at the moment. When we learn from each other we speed up the process, and we desperately need this co-operation because we must increase the pace.

The change has to come from the top if we are to speed up this process. Contrary to popular belief, that is not happening at the moment. In general, CEOs are not on board with gender equality. They are playing lip service. They see it as a tick-box exercise.

What they need to understand is that they are not fooling anyone – and especially not the women in their company. They will know that their leadership is not taking them seriously.

It is all very well for CEOs to be making a lot of noise about diversity and inclusion and gender equality. But in so many cases, the rest of the C-suite finds it difficult to believe that the sentiment is authentic. And if they don’t believe it, then you can guarantee that their women don’t either.

If you think you’re done because you’ve set up a women’s working group then you are very much mistaken. And let’s be clear, we are not talking about just a few isolated CEOs here. The latest reports and figures on gender diversity all seem so positive that you may almost be forgiven if you were to think I was talking about just a few isolated CEOs here and there. 

I’m not. Far from it. I am talking about the vast MAJORITY of CEOs paying nothing but lip service to the issue of gender equality in the C-suite. 

And this will only hurt the companies of the CEOs who refuse to take the issue seriously. Because talented women make a real difference. Companies who have taken their women seriously have seen the benefits in their bottom lines. And in the general happiness in their workforce, and the general health of their company. Staff retention is high, people are motivated.

Elsewhere, the picture is much starker. Those inside the company who do care are frustrated and exhausted as they see the company standing by as they allow their female talent to leave.

Thankfully, there are some CEOs who are serious about their women. And in the spirit of collaboration it is worth sharing some of their thoughts.

“When I lose somebody,” one of them told me in confidence, “I make sure my managers find out why. There is always a reason why someone wants to leave – particular women – and it is vital to find out why. I ALWAYS want to know.”

Another one said: “When a talented woman leaves to raise her children, or another long-term reason, I make sure that we stay in touch. It is important to make them feel that their career isn’t over just because they’ve taken an extended break.”

“It’s OK to let your talent go, “I was told by a woman CEO the other day. “Sometimes they need to go to get the experience they need to progress. If you make them feel valued and show them they have a defined career path with you, then they will come back.”

As I said before, it is clear to me that there is no one simple answer to getting this right. There is no silver bullet. But, as those progressive CEOs I quoted above have so ably demonstrated: if the leadership is genuinely committed to gender equality, then everyone in the company gets it.