Real Leaders

Ready to March on Your CEO’s Office?

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

The future of our world will not improve unless the future for women improves. It’s that simple.

I am simmering with anger. The good kind. The kind that motivates action. The kind that insists on disruptive, radical progress.

My new level of anger is due mostly to my private conversations and public interview with the Oscar-winning women’s activist Patricia Arquette. I have to say she did a great job of radicalizing me.

Normally I play the role of wise consultant.  My profession centers on coaching CEOs to transform their cultures to be more agile and competitive by creating unique value for customers. Over decades of doing this work I found that most women are systematically better at creating and implementing customer-valued innovations than most men. Most often I found myself coaching women in mid-level positions to have more impact and influence on senior-level decisions being made by men. It really matters because new value is created faster.

Over the past two decades I have directly observed, and in many cases helped, women make game changing contributions at companies like Nike, Gap, Cricket Wireless, GE and others. Gap actually retained me to study all the research on the new rules of effective leadership necessary to succeed in the new disruptive economy.

The most profound insight that came out of this research is that women’s actual strengths of systems thinking, social intelligence and mental agility are more predictive of leadership success then the old authoritarian strengths of confidence, decisiveness and competitiveness.  Does this mean every woman is a better leader than every man?  Of course not.  But In the words of Marshall Goldsmith, “What got us here will not get us there.”  And the “there” I want for our future is a lot different than the “here” of our very troubling present.

My culture transformation work has been kind of a stealth effort to elevate more women into senior leadership.

I try to make the policy of giving women more executive power is the smart thing to do rather than the right thing to do. And yes it works okay.  But it is not enough.  It isn’t fast enough. It is not broad enough. It is not radical enough.

We simply must do more, faster. Patricia Arquette’s conversations focused me on the tragic injustice of the systemic exploitation of women that has existed since the dawn of history. It’s true. The first known writings of a woman in Mesopotamia about 5,500 years ago were the advice of a noble woman to other noble women regarding how to influence their husbands and other authoritarian leaders to be more civilized.  It doesn’t appear much that changed.

Just consider a few facts

  1. US Census Bureau confirms that single mothers are raising 25% of our nations children. And nearly half  of these millions of women and children live below the poverty line. If these women were paid equally as men doing the same jobs half of these women and children would be lifted out of poverty. That’s right HALF. Pay equality matters. It is essential at the lowest economic levels where the disparity is greatest.  Latina women make 55 cents and African-American women make 63 cents and Caucasian women 78 cents on the dollar.  The negative impact of this injustice on the quality on child hunger, education and healthcare is immense.
  2. The most under reported crime in America is sexual assault (including rape) and domestic abuse. According to statistics from the US Criminal Justice System less than 1% of rapists go to jail.  6 out of 1,000. These crimes are underreported because the female victim is often accused of inciting the crime or the crime is not seriously investigated so why go through the trauma.  A few years ago one of my daughters was assaulted in a parking lot at two in the afternoon in an upscale mall.  She is a young white professional and the scumbag who attacked her went to jail after she courageously testified in court. It was hard. Yet I have little doubt that if my daughter had been a poor minority not much would’ve happened.  Patricia told me there are over 10,000 desperate women who are turned away from domestic abuse shelters every day because they are overcrowded due to lack of funding. And the reason most women return to their abuser is that they are economically dependent often because they’re paid so unfairly in the crummy job they have.
  3. Male sexual aggression is also way too common in the workplace.  According to a study by the Center for Talent, 63% of women in technology jobs say they have experienced sexual-harassment.  In virtually all of my clients I have served at least one senior manager or executive was terminated for sexual harassment so I am not surprised by the statistic.
  4. The pay and opportunity gap for women has serious economic and social consequences.  For professional women with advanced degrees the opportunity gap this injustice adds up to is a whopping amount.  Female MBAs starting jobs typically pay 5% to 10% less than males with the same degree from the same schools. But what really hammers women’s lifetime earnings is how much more slowly they are promoted.  In many cases in tech companies it takes as much as twice as long for a woman to become a vice president as a man with the equivalent education and career experience.  This can result in a lifetime earnings disparity of $2 million.  Yes, that has quite an impact on retirement and children’s education opportunities and quality of life. (If you question whether there is an opportunity gap just consider this recent research from Mercer. In global companies 49% of the support staff are women, 26% are senior managers and only 20% are executives. And if you think this is because because women are not committed to their careers or want to take time off it’s time to wake up.  McKinsey’s research confirms that professional women are even more committed to their careers and career advancement than men.)
  5. Women’s stress and hypertension is also directly impacted by income disparity.  For decades researchers thought working women experienced more chronic worry, extreme stress and depression than men due to their hormones.  (Believe me I am not making this up.) But new research has revealed that while women doing the same job for less pay suffer from higher amounts of chronic stress, women who were paid equally to men have no more stress, anxiety or depression than their male peers. So, read this headline . . . income and opportunity disparity may be killing you!
  6. Surveys show most CEO’s don’t believe there are pay or opportunity gaps in their companies. When Marc Benioff, the CEO of initiated a gender pay parity audit he was absolutely sure that he was paying women equitably.  Instead the audit showed that he was under-paying the women of by $3 million per year.  So over 10 years these women would’ve lost collectively $30 million in compensation. Multiply that times thousands of companies and see how much women suffer economically.
  7. Women are grossly underrepresented in the leadership of our most powerful institutions. Only one in five directors of public companies are women. The primary reason given by male directors is that there are not enough qualified women. However, women board members of these companies say the primary reason there are not enough women on the board is because of gender bias. The criteria that men use to judge the suitability of a candidate for a board seat is weighted heavily towards the authoritarian male attributes such as confidence, assertiveness and decisiveness.  We need to face it . . . boards are simply boys clubs where women are most often respected when they act like men. Only 4.2% of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. And only 1 in 5 U.S. Senators are women.  The pipeline of women entrepreneurs in high-tech and science sectors is disproportionately low because the culture of tech incubators and sources of capital are skeptical of women. (Forms of hazing women in tech incubators are very common as males legitimize their boorish behavior as a test to see if women are really tough enough to succeed in the male world.)
  8. Many new women CEOs are often set up to fail.  And analysis by sociologist Marianne Cooper of CEO transitions among Fortune 500 companies over 15 years found something alarming. Women were more likely to get promoted to CEO when companies were in trouble. This makes them more likely to fail.  Think of the difficult circumstances facing Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, Meg Whitman at HP or Mary Berra at GM.   Women are literally hired to clean up messes made by men . . . which is how it has always been.   Cooper reports that too often when women are unable to quickly turn the company around they become the scapegoat for the negative outcome caused by previous male management. (The next time you’re asked to save a poorly led, underfunded project, think twice.)
  9. What women want is fairness, respect and earned support.  The Towers Watson Global Workforce Study found that women who felt valued and respected by their supervisor were 130% more likely to stay with their organization and 67% more engaged.  Yet according to the Center for Talent. 83% of professional women lack internal sponsors who advocate for their advancement and promotion.  Nearly half of women feel stalled or stuck in their careers because they are consistently overlooked and undervalued.  More than a third of women in technology companies feel isolated by exclusionary male culture.
  10. Confidence is viewed as an essential attribute for leadership and women are often criticized for not acting confident. But confidence results from the degree to which you believe your actions will result in positive outcomes. So if you’re working in an environment that is unsupportive it would be foolish to be confident. Welcome to Catch-22.

This is the world we live in. It is dominated by male bias and the vestiges of a dying authoritarian leadership culture.  I am not convinced that the evolutionary pace of change is fast enough to save the world from its current insanity.  We have dinosaurs ruling the planet and we need an asteroid to create a new future.

It starts with bold lawmaking. Do you realistically believe that enough leaders will volunteer to change the status quo?  It’s doubtful. We live in a culture where people adamantly opposed mandatory seatbelt laws as an infringement on their personal right to take stupid risks. It was only when it became a public health issue that reason quashed stupidity. Business leaders always whine and complain about overregulation but we wouldn’t need regulations if businesses did not frequently exploit consumers, employees or the environment.

Regulation is probably the least efficient, but most effective way to get gender equality.

Because of the California Fair Pay act California companies are now going to have to submit gender-based wage data. Yes, it’s a regulatory burden but without it CEOs can continue to claim ignorance when it comes to cheating women from their fair compensation.

And yes, we need an equal rights amendment to the Constitution so that women can effectively bring claims of discrimination before our courts.

I really wish more CEOs understood what they are missing by not promoting women who lead like women into many more important executive positions. I wish men were much better at respecting women in the workplace and really listened to their social logic so they could begin to see the invisible impacts of every  corporate decision on their customers, employees and communities . . . but they don’t.  At least not many of them. Not really. So we must act!

The time has come for modern working suffragettes to petition their CEOs for three things.

More women with greater influence at the strategic table. At least a third of the C- Suite line leaders and 40% of corporate boards should be women.
Formally institute pay and opportunity equity accounting so companies have actionable data to recruit, pay and advance women fairly.

Institute the 3 Rules of a Talent–Centered Culture:
Results-driven workplace – flex time, remote work, video communication.
Talent-driven advancement – clear career path feedback, development, sponsorship.
Human-centered policies – generous family leave, work re-entry, childcare allowance.
These are not radical ideas.  Many professional services firms already operate this way because their talent is their product.  But the rest of the business world will not come along unless they are vigorously pushed.

Are you prepared to petition your CEO?

Would you be willing to march to his office?

Would you be willing to do a corporate sit-in?

You may think I’m kidding.

I’m not.  It’s not that CEOs are evil . . . they are just busy.  Too busy to put a lot of sustained thinking into the issues that are affecting your everyday work life on their long-term competitiveness.

So we are going to have to do something a bit radical to get their attention and to drive change.

It is simply not acceptable for millions of women to be paid less, have less opportunity, and too have little influence about our world’s future.

My oldest granddaughter is entering college this year.  The time for change is now.


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