The Economist recently released an article examining women on boards and the numbers and realities behind various studies over the past decade, which focused on female executives and boards in Europe, the United States, and emerging markets. While many top companies and organizations have stringent diversity initiatives aimed at placing more women in top executive positions and on boards, and while many have been successful in doing so, there still remains a hefty gap in the number of women in management and the percentages of women who occupy top senior positions and board seats. While this gap is not news, and in spite of diversity initiatives, some of which have been in place for years now, the gap, although slowly shrinking in some regions, remains.

The Economist article is particularly insightful because it addresses the gender debate in business by looking at widely accepted views on reasons behind the gap, while also adding some new, and less discussed perspectives, all results of the studies. While the debate about women on boards, and quotas used to put them there, has been a hot-button issue not without controversies, the Economist article points to perhaps a more important question:

How many women make it to top executive suites?

Most board members come from the top executive suite-level, of course, and the percent of women there is also slim.

Some numbers reported by the Economist:

In the US in 2010:

  • Women made up less than 18% of senior managers
  • Women made up less than 8% of the highest earners (they were paid less at every level, including the top layer)
  • Among Fortune 500 companies only about 15% of the most senior managers and only 3% of the CEOs were women

Some numbers reported by the German Institute of Economic Research:

In Germany in 2010:

  • Women held only 3.2% of all executive board seats in Germany's 200 biggest non-financial firms
  • Financial institutions and insurance companies, where half of all employees are female, did no better
  • On supervisory boards, women faired slightly better, but still only 11% (companies included Porsche, E.ON and Robert Bosch)

It was reported all over the media in October when Virginia Rometty was appointed IBM's first female CEO. Still, female bosses like Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, Irene Rosenfeld at Kraft Foods, Güler Sabanci at Sabanci Group and Chanda Kochhar at ICICI get more attention than their male colleagues, reports the Economist, because women executives at large companies are still so rare.

Considering that companies do recruit and promote women, and also considering half the new intake of graduates for managerial positions in wealthy nations are women, why the gap?

The Economist article puts forth one possible reason: Female managers tend to work in functional specialties like HR rather than in line management, where most top executives are gleaned. The article also considers the more dominantly held belief that board tradition is that of white middle-aged men who tend to recruit new colleagues in their own image and comfort zone, and even from their own social circles.

Joanna Barsh, a director in McKinsey's office in New York suggests another possible reason for the gap on boards: Women are more visible with a different style, and thus a "bigger risk." When something goes wrong, everyone notices. The article also mentions women have few role models to look up to when it comes to senior executive leadership, and thus, they may be more reluctant than their male counterparts who have more visible mentors available to them. Furthermore, male leaders may be more hesitant to mentor young female executives because it could send a wrong signal.

The Economist article goes on to point to the famous Deloitte case study by Harvard Business School that took place in 2003, where women made up half the new intake at graduate level, but only 10% of candidates at partnership. What the study found was, women hadn't left to focus on families or to spend more time at home, but in fact, 90% were still working, but for other firms. What the study uncovered was that the system in place for advancement that had worked for men for so long--mentoring, coaching, counselling, networking--actually worked against women. Deloitte at that time, to be blunt, was simply a terrible place for women to work, and after the study, the company worked quickly to change that. They were not alone.

Do women actually want top jobs?

According to the Economist article, the answer is, well, maybe. Sheryl Sannberg, COO of Facebook, offered that she sees an ambition gap with women, who she perceives as not only less ambitious than men, but also less ambitious than women 20 years ago, reports the Economist. The Centre for Policy Studies, a British think-tank finds that women overwhelmingly are "adaptives" who seek a more balanced life between work and family when it comes to their male counterparts. Men tend to be more work-centered, and willing to place work before all else in order to compete in a global economy, while for many women, that may simply not fit into their value system, or at least, not long-term.

While opinions and the reasons for the gap may vary, it is clear there is a strong business case for women at the top. In 2007, McKinsey looked at 230 public and private companies and organizations worldwide and discovered that those with more women in top management positions performed better in a range of areas, including leadership, accountability, market capitalisation, and innovation.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Email with "BlueSteps Blog: Women and Boards" in the subject line.

Read the full Economist article here.

This article was written by Joe Chappell from the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC).

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