Why Are American Female CEOs Rare?

The Roadblocks Aspiring Female CEOs Face

March 8th, 2020 is International Women’s Day. This day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women across the world. Consea Executive Search is proud to have, Antonella Cerabona, as our CEO of Consea America Inc. Having a female CEO is a testament to Consea’s inclusivity and diversity initiative. As International Women’s Day approaches, we celebrate women’s accomplishments, but we address what roadblocks women continue to face. It’s no secret that gender inequality exists throughout America’s workforce. Consea America is proud to have Antonella as our CEO but why don’t more companies have female CEOs? Research of the 500 largest American companies reveals that only 6% of CEOs are female. Statistics show these companies have seen an increase in female CEO appointments but even at this rate of improvement, America faces decades before achieving gender parity at the CEO level.

The Wall Street Journal article, Where Are All the Women CEOs?, analyzes America’s top 500 companies and the institutional roadblocks female executives face in the pursuit to become CEO. According to the WSJ, there is a ‘traditional career’ track for future CEOs. To be considered ‘on track’ to becoming CEO, one is expected to hold an executive position that specifically impacts the firm’s P&L. For example, executives in Sales, Operations, or Division Heads would be considered on track for a CEO promotion. Holding an executive position in a P&L role is recognized as a stepping-stone to becoming CEO. Statistically, women are more likely to hold executive roles in non-P&L departments, such as HR, Marketing, and Legal. Within some organizations, there’s more encouragement for males to pursue P&L positions, which leads women’s career paths toward other areas of the business. Women who demonstrate the same qualities, aptitude, and ambition to become CEO may be overlooked simply because they are not in the right department.

Where Are All the Women CEOs?, notes that women receive different “career-building cues” than men do throughout their careers. WSJ declares, “nearly half the men report getting detailed advice at work on how to chart their path to a P&L job, compared to 15% of women surveyed”. At the executive level, the guidance and advice received are essential to career growth. If holding a position in P&L is key to being on the CEO career track, then men and women should be receiving the same career-cues to get them there. Unfortunately, there are instances that companies have deterred women from entering P&L roles. Women have often been passed for P&L promotions for being ‘too valuable’ or ‘essential’ to leave their current department. In a sense, the company is selfishly stunting female’s career growth due to her success. Many women stay in their department awaiting the ‘right time’ that may never come. Men respond differently when faced with this roadblock. Some men threaten to leave the organization if they aren’t promoted to a P&L department. They acknowledge that the company is overlooking their value and growth potential. Women are not being led toward the CEO path but are being turned away from it. If women continue to face difficulty entering P&L roles and unfairly passed for promotions for being “too valuable”, then the traditional CEO track will continue to favor men.

Looking at this from the sociological perspective, businesses that seek gender parity at the CEO level, need to encourage and support female executives into stepping-stone roles that put them on the traditional CEO track. Currently, the lack of females represented in key executive roles that lead to CEO is a roadblock for aspiring female CEO’s. To overcome this, corporations like Sanofi have implemented a leadership program to develop their top talented females. This program equips women with executive coaching and exposure to high-level assignments in another part of the business. This ensures women receive career-building cues, guidance, and tools necessary to get them on the CEO career track. Sanofi recognized investing in developing high potential women, supports an increase of females on the CEO track. In 2018, one-third of the women who participated in their leadership program has been promoted.

To see more female CEOs, corporations must prioritize women’s ambition by fostering and extending opportunities that guide women to the traditional CEO track. There is no reason to exclude talented women from receiving career advice and tools men are given. There needs to be a priority to increase female’s access to executive P&L roles. Having an equal representation of men and women on the CEO track will lead to an increase of female CEOs.

Women might take a few notes from their male counterparts and be unapologetically confident in their value and fight back when being passed for a promotion because “they’re too needed in their current role”. Women in leadership roles should make a point to reach out and serve as mentors to younger females who wish to follow in their footsteps. Companies can implement programs that directly prioritize developing women’s skills that are essential to becoming CEO.

Focusing on increasing avenues that lead females to executive P&L roles will balance the representation of genders on the ‘traditional CEO track’. Eliminating the roadblock females face getting on this track will lead to an increase in female CEOs. I don’t believe we will have to wait 40 years to see gender parity at the CEO level in America if organizations take action by providing women and men the same career building cues, access to promotions to key executive roles on the CEO track, and support systems. International Women’s Day is a time to remember how much women have fought to achieve. We celebrate those accomplishments. We also acknowledge that there are still improvements to be made and women must continue to fight for equality at the highest level.

Written by: Andrea Lopez, a Recruiter for Consea America Inc.




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