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Where Are All the Senior-Level Females?

By V. Malhotra; Wall Street Journal; April 11, 2011

What is holding women back in the workplace? And how might those restraints be broken? Vikram Malhotra, chairman of the Americas at McKinsey & Co., told the Women in the Economy conference what observations into those questions his company discovered in its latest investigation. The Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray subsequently discussed those conclusions with Harvard University business economics professor Claudia Goldin; Saadia Zahidi, manager of the Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program at the World Economic Forum; and Nancy Carter, supervisor of research at Catalyst Inc. Here are edited excerpts of Mr. Malhotra's address along with the discussion that followed.

MR. MALHOTRA: Why aren't there more women in senior placements, even with the best endeavours of businesses?

The reason is very simple. Our corporate creativity pipeline is leaky, and it is obstructed. Qualified women enter into the work force in ample numbers, but they begin to drop off at the very first selecting of expertise, when they are qualified for their very first supervision positions. And it only becomes worse after that.

There is a silver lining, a leverage point-middle-management women. They possess tremendously excessive aspirations. They are obtaining new skills and gaining expertise regarding how business functions. And they are growing more confident and more dedicated day by day.

They really want to move to the next stage, as much as men do. We need to seize their intellects and spirits long before their ambitions turn sour.

And we know that their aspirations do become bitter before those of men down the road. And so what is discouraging and keeping back such highly qualified, extremely enthusiastic women? To start with, the familiar structural barriers. They comprise a lack of women role models, exclusion from casual networks where connections are made, and the deficiency of support. Second, there are generally life activities issues-concern regarding the 24/7 executive lifestyle and travelling demands.

The third barrier is the entrenched thinking maintained by both men and females throughout management: "Everyone knows you just can't place a female in that specific slot." Or, "That position can never be accomplished part time." Or, "If you advance a woman and she goes away on leave, we will never make our numbers."

A fourth barrier is personal mind-sets. As females age, their particular desire to shift to the next stage disappears more quickly than men's.

What can we do about this? It starts with a compelling story for change-the business situation. It requires management at every tier and workers of all levels to connect with the case for transformation and realize exactly how they can each contribute to it.

Second, it requires refining the organizational processes and various other mechanisms to reinforce the change. 3rd, we ought to build the capabilities that facilitate the preferred conduct. For example, both men and women are able to learn just how to be much more valuable sponsors than they are currently. Finally, it requires leaders all the way down to the front line.

MR. MURRAY: Saadia, does your research show at all how much of this is either lifestyle decisions or individual mind-sets compared to structural issues or institutional mind-sets?

MS. ZAHIDI: They are reasonable options bearing in mind the structural environment. So there is a need with regard to changing a certain amount of of the framework.

Companies and countries often want to change and are nowadays starting to buy into the business case, but usually do not actually know how to. They are inclined to go through a lengthy internal approach of learning, when that learning could come about so much faster if there was greater sharing across businesses and across international locations. So one thing we're trying to do is generate a library of best practices.

MS. CARTER: It's essential to recognize that there are various ways of constructing the business case. We've talked about the financial business case. Did the financial performance of the company improve by having females on the board or in senior authority positions? There's a good deal of analysis that will show that yes, when you have increased representation of females on those boards, the company gets better.

But there is likewise a marketing business circumstance. What kinds of products are you generating? What kinds of offerings are you giving? What kind of consumers do you have? Does the manifestation of men and females in senior executive positions emulate what the marketplace is?

We likewise can talk about a societal business case. By and large if you now have females that are represented, that's likely to better the environment.

MR. MURRAY: Claudia, you talked about lifestyle. Could you expand on that a little bit? What are the life style options that individuals make?

MS. GOLDIN: There used to be a time when there were truly very apparent barriers. Women, whenever they got married, were terminated from positions. So we don't have some of those limitations today. We have various other barriers-the junction involving what women would prefer and what they're being offered by careers, firms, corporations, sectors, establishments, just about anything.

For example-M.D.s. Thirty-six percent of all woman pediatricians of all age groups work part time. That is the way they have a profession that they really are proud of, which is satisfying, that is their personal identity, and they may additionally mesh it with this element called living. There's a lot more meshing of family and profession.

MR. MURRAY: But to the extent, Saadia, that it's lifestyle selections causing women to drop out of the pipeline, then we'll practically never deal with the issue that Nancy and Vik talked about-are females willing to pay the cost in terms of lengthy working hours and lifestyle sacrifices that it will take to get to the very top.

MS. ZAHIDI: Take Switzerland as an example. The majority of child-care facilities close at 3:00 p.m. and most educational institutions are not open on Wednesdays. And it is still typically mothers who have to be the principal caregiver.

Now within that government-created context, if you then choose to go for child care, that is definitely going to cost you roughly $5,000 every month. Couple that with a pretty conventional shared taxation structure for the husband and wife, and it simply just becomes not worthy to make that decision.

And so it becomes nearly impossible for companies to genuinely try to compete in opposition to that system. And so one of the pieces of research we are attempting to do is what is that government-created environment? What's happening in terms of child care, what's happening in terms of taxation, what's happening in terms of paternal leave?

And after that the 2nd thing is within that framework, what are organizations undertaking? And the initial area is setting goals across the overall organization structure. The second is you have to be creating and developing that female pool at virtually all degrees.

Third would be education and incentivizing supervisors. Making this a part of your reward and additional inducement structures. The 4th is promoting that work-life balance and ensuring that this is not seen as just a women's environment. The 5th is delivering the right indicators via communication and leadership.

And finally, what can you do outside of the office? What can be carried out through supply and distribution chains? What can be done by way of advertising? What can be carried out throughout areas that corporations are active in?

MR. MURRAY: If you had to point to a single factor that you had the ability to change in this area, what would it be?

MS. CARTER: Set desired goals for diversity and inclusion at each and every level of the organization and hold individuals accountable for accomplishing those goals.

MS. GOLDIN: We have to realize that life is a lot longer than it used to be. So just because you take some time out does not suggest your capability over your life period is going to be that much smaller.

MS. ZAHIDI: I believe I'd have to concur very much with Nancy's point on target setting, but combined with transparency. You could look at it as naming and shaming, but it is effective.