Time to smash the glass ceiling

Last week, the FT reported on research by Spencer Stuart, an executive search company, into the diversity of S&P 500 company boards.

According to the research, over the last five years the top 500 US companies have not significantly increased the representation of women on their executive boards, with one in five companies continuing to be all-male bastions.

The article talks about women’s failure to break the glass ceiling. Is it, as usual, women’s fault? But what of corporate executives’ failure to ensure their boards are better balanced and actually reflect the demography of their shareholders and customers? While women make up 16 per cent of the S&P 500 boards, and minorities a further 15 per cent, 50 per cent of these companies claim to be actively seeking to promote both, according to Julie Daum, who headed the research for Spencer Stuart.

I recently interviewed Andrea Jung of Avon. Since Jung has been the company’s chief executive it has one of the most diverse workforces among S&P 500 companies. About 50 per cent of each of the top two layers of management comprises women, who also make up four of the nine members of Avon’s external board. “We have quite a formal structure for succession planning: all 150 top jobs in the company are reviewed regularly and shortlists for each one drawn up. There is an explicit expectation that those lists [will] include at least one woman,” Jung says. “I can’t say whether the next chief executive of Avon will be a woman, but I can say that women will be in the shortlist alongside men.”

Jung argues the business case as much as the ethical for constructing mixed management: “Dialogue and decision making are more robust [with diverse teams]. All-female teams wouldn’t work either,” Jung explains.

Avon is not alone in instituting rigorous structures at management levels to ensure there is a strong pipeline to draw upon that comprises the best talent of both genders. Kraft and PepsiCo both have similar systems, for example. In Australia, Anglo American, the mining group, has managed to transform an all-male mining force to one that now comprises 26 per cent female miners in just three years – and that’s in mining.

According to Julie Daum at Spencer Stuart, as at May 15 this year there were still 50 companies in the S&P 500 that retained all-male boards. Although, perhaps in a sign things are gradually improving, three have since appointed at least one woman.

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