Twenty years ago, the movie “White Men Can’t Jump” was released, and it remains so popular that a remake is reportedly in the works. It’s funny, and it’s based in Los Angeles, so it has two strong things going for it.
Regarding the title, though: I beg to differ. White men seem to be doing very well in jumping – at least, to the top of the corporate ranks. It’s women whose feet are held to the floor.
Although women actually make up the majority of the U.S. population, you wouldn’t know it by looking at our representation in the c-suite. Among Fortune 500 companies, women represent five percent of CEOs and only 15 percent of executive officers. And women hold only 19 percent of all board of director seats in the S&P.
It’s not for lack of interest, although family considerations may hinder momentum to a greater extent for women than for men. A 2016 Gallup poll shows that 45 percent of women would like to become a CEO or have a position in senior management. So what can women do to jump in their own careers and in the process, help close the executive gender gap?
Three things are critical for women to achieve executive equity. Corporations must make a strong commitment to a diverse workplace, including in upper management. Educational institutions must provide opportunities and a clear vision of steps needed for career trajectory. And women should leverage their own unique values as they progress through the corporate pipeline to both accelerate their path to the c-suite and benefit their organizations.
DIVERSITY LEADS TO STRONGER MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES
Prioritizing diversity initiatives in workplace, with women in co-equal positions of responsibility, is one way that companies can challenge the status quo and position themselves for continuous re-invention.
Good leaders embrace diversity of opinion, regardless of race, gender, political affiliation, religion, business experience, educational level, and other factors. Pepperdine Graziadio alumnus David Feinberg, president and chief executive officer of Geisinger Health, said that after he joined the company, he sought to learn from people on the frontlines — not just the medical team, but also cooking staff, nutritionists and others – in order to build an out-of-the-box, innovative organization. Corporations who seek to create a diverse workplace, including elevating women to executive positions, will find greater success.
EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES EXPOSE WOMEN TO THE POSSIBLE
A recent study in Science Magazine suggested that by the age of 6, girls are more likely to lose faith in their abilities, believing that “brilliance” is a male trait — a finding that the lead researcher called “heartbreaking.” If, at an early age, brilliance is associated only with men, while girls stop believing that they can succeed, how can women see themselves in leadership roles, let alone propel themselves there?
In our MBA programs at Pepperdine Graziadio, we deliberately present students with real world business challenges that expose them to corporate decision-making. When young women understand the value they can offer corporate executives, they are even more inspired to aim for a seat at that table.What if we started to expose women even earlier – in college, high school, or even grade school? How many more female CEOs would we have if we spotlighted women in positions of power, nurturing dreams of great possibilities at a young age?
A COMMITMENT TO ETHICS CREATES VALUES-CENTERED LEADERS
An individual should never be in the position where he or she is forced to compromise values because there is no other choice. Our values are what help us to stay the course when others flounder.
A few years ago, I wrote in the Graziadio Business Review that, “Holding a set of highly prioritized values is an essential element of leadership.” As evidence, I pointed to research that suggests, “women leaders hold a preference for benevolence and achievement values” and opined that, “Perhaps this is an optimal value combination for women leaders.”
Women sometimes feel voiceless in the corporate world, especially when they are so dramatically outnumbered in executive positions. That has to change. By advancing values-centered leadership in our companies, we also differentiate and create competitive advantage for those companies. Additionally, good corporate citizenry motivates employees to perform in alignment with those values. As women progress through leadership channels, they must hold tight those values and espouse them forcefully to be viewed as a leader.
It may take another 10 or 20 years to reach executive gender parity. With all due respect to men who “jump” into positions of power, we’re fighting our way to a more level playing field, but we’ll get there. With every point we score by increasing our presence in the c-suite, we’ll be closer to achieving a more equitable workplace, and a better corporate world.
Dr. Bernice Ledbetter is Practitioner Faculty of Organizational Theory and Management at Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business and Management where she chairs the M.S. in Management and Leadership degree program. Her research and teaching interests focus on values-based leadership, peace leadership, and gender. Dr. Ledbetter founded the Pepperdine Center for Women in Leadership to empower and advance women in the workplace.