A new report by Columbia Business School and the Women’s Executive Circle of New York (WECNY) has found that since 2006, the number of women serving on corporate boards has increased by a healthy 31 percent, but the number of women serving in C-suite positions has remained about the same.
The “2015 New York Census — The State of Women Business Leaders in New York State” analyzed data from fiscal year 2014 from the top 100 public companies headquartered in New York State — ranked by revenue. It compared these findings with those from its previous 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013 reports. This year’s census found that between 2006 and 2014, the percentage of women directors jumped from 15.6 percent to 20.5 percent — roughly 31 percent — while the percentage of women holding executive officer positions increased only slightly from 11.9 percent to 12.7 percent, a growth of about 6.7 percent. The good news, though, is that 93 percent of companies had at least one female board director or executive (combined), an increase from 90 percent in 2012.
The findings were revealed on May 6 at a breakfast event hosted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which included a special presentation by report writer Ann Bartel, the Merrill Lynch Professor of Workforce Transformation at Columbia Business School. A finding of particular note, Bartel pointed out, is that in banking and finance specifically, the percentage of women directors has had a somewhat inverse relationship with the percentage of women executives. Since 2006, the number of directors in this industry rose from 12.5 percent to 16.1 percent while the number of executive officers dropped from 15.9 percent to 7.8 percent. At the same time, some industries saw multiple-percentage-point increases in female executive officers. Food and drink, for example, saw the number of women executives skyrocket from 8.3 percent to 33.3 percent between 2006 and 2014, while software and service jumped from 8.7 percent to 29.4 percent and retail saw an increase of 16.7 percent to 22.2 percent.
“We need to understand what’s accounting for these different patterns,” Bartel said. “What can we learn from those companies, and those industries, that have a strong female presence in leadership positions?”
As the research suggests, and as one attendee remarked during the final Q&A, a critical issue going forward will be how organizations ensure there are enough women in the executive pipeline. “The fact that we’re seeing better representation on boards — [could this] lead to an increase in the pool of qualified female candidates for executive positions?” Bartel asked. “Might this lead to a different process by which executive positions are filled? As more senior men retire, might that make way for the appointment of new women?”
Bartel’s talk was followed by a panel featuring Elizabeth Nieto, senior vice president and global chief diversity and inclusion officer for MetLife, Inc.; Pilar Ramos, executive vice president and associate general counsel for North America at Master Card; and Norine Kennedy, vice president for strategic international engagement, energy, and environment for the United States Council for International Business. The panel was moderated by Candace Quinn and Kate Waters of WECNY.
During the panel, the topic of diversity — both specific to gender and more broadly — was widely discussed.
“Leaders have really come to the conclusion that having a diverse board or a diverse group of leaders [is] not just the good thing to do. It is about a business imperative,” said Nieto. “Who's going to be our consumers? We cannot really understand this world if we only have one way of looking at [it]. Bringing diversity of gender, bringing ethnic and racial diversity, gives us that other perspective into how we look at the business. I think that more and more leaders are getting that connection.”
“When we talk about diversity and inclusion, [we are also talking about] social sustainability,” Ramos added. “If you don't get half of the world's developed population into the financial mainstream eventually, social sustainability is an unachievable objective.”
Attendee Elizabeth Peterson ’87 drove home this point with a comment during the Q&A at the end of the panel.
“This generation coming up, they will choose the company that actually is good for women, and they’re not going to choose the industries and companies that aren’t,” she said. “There’s going to be a wake-up call in about 10 years in this country.”