GMAC Viewpoints: Shining a Light on the Value That Women Bring to the Workplace
There are compelling reasons to unravel the workplace fabric that has kept women away from the top echelon of business. But what’s needed to drive change?
It took place eight decades ago, but the story of The New York Times’ first publisher succession is back in the news, as the company moves closer to naming its next leader. Rereading it has provided edifying context for examining the state of business leadership, then and now.
Back in the 1930s, as Times patriarch Adolph Ochs, having no son, contemplated who would take the reins of his powerful, history-shaping family business, he was torn between two possible successors: his son-in-law, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, or a nephew, Julius Ochs Adler. He did have a daughter, Iphigene. But she was never in the running. Though Iphigene ended up playing a deciding role in the succession decision—eventually choosing her husband over her cousin and providing a strong guiding hand in the Times’ future—the top role would never belong to her.
The tale illustrates how difficult it used to be for women to ascend to the highest roles in business, even when their families owned those businesses. The great stories are mostly special cases: Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, who married Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, led her family’s company to success by narrowing its wide-ranging involvement in wool and banking and focusing exclusively on Champagne. We drink Veuve Cliquot to this day because of her executive decisions. But she only had the chance to make them because her husband died.
Gender discrimination remains a chronic problem in many countries, with challenges to women’s rights to property and education. In the United States, we are fortunate that women are earning undergraduate and graduate degrees at unprecedented rates, providing the basis for a natural evolution in the workplace. But the pace of change is too slow. Corporate America still is plagued by what we might call “second-generation gender bias”—workplace policies and cultures that affect men and women differently.
The conditions are familiar enough, and the results are stark. In 2015, still only 24 CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female. At the US public companies that had at least $1 billion in fiscal year-end market capitalization, only eight out of the 100 top-paid CEOs were women, according to a ranking done by Equilar. In addition, two of our own Fordham University researchers, Iftekhar Hasan and Meng Yan, reported in a recent paper that only 11 percent of the CFOs at S&P 500 companies are women.
There are compelling reasons to unravel the workplace fabric that has kept women away from the top echelon of business. A Catalyst study of Fortune 500 companies demonstrated that the companies with the highest representation of women on their senior management teams had a 35 percent higher return on equity. A 2014 Credit Suisse analysis found a similar correlation between the number of women executives and out performance, and a 2014 study of Fortune 1,000 companies showed that firms led by women CEOs, though accounting for just five percent of the list, actually were responsible for seven percent of the Fortune 1000’s total revenue.
So, what will drive change? First, we must shine a light on the value that women bring to the workplace—and not in subordinate or “helper” roles. Female leadership is creative. It is energetic and empathetic. Its form of problem-solving thrives on discussion and weaves in collaboration. In today’s complex changing world, that is just what is needed.
Second, men and women must work together to make equal space for one another in all aspects of our careers and daily lives. By now, we should be past the point in our society where there is “men’s work” and “women’s work.” For men or women to come into their full potential, they each, in equal proportion, should have a hand in developing a career and raising a child, listening and deciding, building and leading. This will not only expand the high-level work opportunities available to women, but also create better circumstances for our corporations, our social structures, and our children.
Every task or problem we face, large or small, corporate or home, could use a balance of male and female involvement and the male and female approach.
What I hope to see in our near future is a great wave of equilibrium. Women will be able to rise, and men will thrive in new ways. I have sought to create a balance of both female and male leadership in our business school, and have encouraged our undergraduate and graduate students of all genders and backgrounds to seek their place at the top. I look forward to creating partnerships with other universities and national organizations that share this vision of accelerating a change for which we’ve waited far too long.
About the Author
Donna Rapaccioli is dean of the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University.
She is also a member of the GMAC Board of Directors.