Where are the Female Executives?

The other day I got into a discussion about how the percentage of women in large companies shrinks when you get to the executive level. This is something that’s always bothered me, because as an employee when I see few women at the top, I know that at a certain point I will need to leave the organization if I want an opportunity to grow.

Now in the past several years, I made an assumption that it’s exceedingly rare to see more than a couple women at the top levels of an organization.  After the conversation, I thought more about the topic. Is there really such a huge lack of women at the executive level? Is it fair for me to judge without seeing a bit of data?

So, I decided to do an unofficial and very limited gender study based on a few (20) of the top Fortune 500 companies (http://beta.fortune.com/fortune500/list). What are the results? Only two of the companies exceeded 30% of women at the executive/officer level and the average was 21%. Check out the chart below:

Number of Male and Female Executives and Officers at Top Companies

When I look at a team of executives and four-fifths of them are men, it sends a message, however unintentional. What I am hearing is “We may want women in some positions in our company, but we don’t value it at the top.” This is a potentially upsetting message for employees who may take the lack of women (and an overall lack of racial/ethnic diversity amongst executives) as a sign that they will have fewer opportunities for leadership. Let’s take it a step further and think about the women in management and senior roles. Are they going to stay at the company if they see a glass ceiling (even if there is an entrance the size of a pet door)?  Would you stay at a company if you felt that your opportunities were more restricted because of your gender?

This is an important consideration for employers because it means that the company is putting many of their valuable assets at risk. Individuals who feel there isn’t room for growth are likely to leave the organization and take their institutional knowledge and experience with them. While hiring new individuals is expensive, the loss of institutional knowledge can be irreplaceable.

So, what can you do as an employee? First, you can support and encourage diversity initiatives. Second, you can have an open discussion with your manager or Human Resources (if this is a reasonable thing to do in your company). If you are in a management or executive role, you can champion diversity initiatives and mentor women who are interested in moving into senior roles. Finally, if your organization doesn’t support your growth or value diversity initiatives, consider looking for one that does.


A few disclaimers and comments:

First, the sample size is very small here. 20 of 500 “Fortune 500” companies is 4%. Second, this was not a rigorous study. I checked the pages of top executives on company websites, and counted the executives listed on each company's executive board page, then split them into gender camps based on name/attire. There may be inconsistencies with who is considered an executive amongst companies. 

I didn't address diversity outside gender lines, but suggest reading:  http://money.cnn.com/2015/01/29/news/economy/mcdonalds-ceo-diversity/ 

If you see an error, please let me know and I will work to correct it!

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