Breaking Down Obstacles for Female Executives

Carrie Buchwald

Thursday, March 03, 2016

There are 500 CEO positions across the Fortune 500. Currently, only 26 of those offices are occupied by female executives.

Women’s share of managerial and professional positions has been steadily increasing – from 30.6% of such positions in 1968 to over half of them in 2013. Still, the same pace is not reflected in the upper echelons of senior corporate leadership. Why are less than 5 percent of these prestigious and powerful positions held by women? Clearly, corporate America still has a long way to go in terms of gender equity.

Why Aren’t More Women Making it to the C-Suite?

In an interview with CNN Money, Denise Morrison, the CEO of Campbell Soup, discussed the limited opportunities for women in divisions that manage operations and corporate strategy. According to Morrison, women are not recruited and groomed for senior executive positions because they remain less likely to be in roles that are seen as critical to profit and loss (P&L). These P&L executive positions allow for tangible measurement of talent and expertise, and provide bottom line results that can be attributed directly to leadership.

High responsibility and measurable accountability roles also come with a career commitment that can make other priorities difficult for some women who carry the brunt of home responsibilities or are also pursuing consulting or small business opportunities. A senior executive role requires a personal investment that can make it difficult to balance other interests or obligations, which may explain women’s hesitancy to align to a C-Suite career path.

Providing Mentorship and Career Support for Female Executives

While women’s share of executive support roles is increasing – in areas such as human resources, accounting and finance – growth in the C-Suite remains stagnant. Why the disparity? Do male executives have more support in their pursuit of top level leadership opportunities?

Part of the gender disparity could be down to relationship building. A strong network and support from colleagues is often required for women to penetrate the C-Suite of large organizations. Since a disproportionate number of women are in supportive executive roles, they may have fewer opportunities to campaign for more strategic leadership positions. With less access to senior level sponsors and mentors – and a dearth of role models in C-Suite positions – female executives have fewer colleagues supporting their ascent up the corporate ladder.

According to data provided by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, most employees do not believe their companies are placing a high priority on gender equity for leadership roles. While more than 74% of corporations surveyed indicated that gender equity in management and leadership roles was an active, ongoing goal for their organization, less than 50% of employees surveyed felt that was true in practice.

Director at the Stanford Clayman Institute for Gender Research Dr. Shelley Correll refers to the lack of support for gender diversity among CEOs as “the frozen middle”. Her solution for organizations is to focus on behaviors that are limiting to female executives. Behaviors that senior executives may not be aware of are creating a culture that limits women’s upward mobility. By recognizing the unconscious bias that exists, improving mentorship, coaching and support equally for both male and female candidates, companies can improve gender equity.

There are more female CEOs in corporate America now than ever before. It’s to a company’s advantage to expand on this trend by opening more doors for talented, female executives. Female executives possess leadership strengths that differ from their male colleagues and a well-rounded executive infrastructure must include contributions from both male and female strategic leadership to be remain competitive in business.

Carrie Buchwald LFGSM


Carrie Buchwald is the Vice President of Corporate Learning Solutions at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management (LFGSM). As a member of the Leadership Team at LFGSM, Carrie leads a sales and delivery team that provides flexible, customized learning with measurable business impact.


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