Female Leaders: Lots of Talk, Little Progress

Female leaders have made big news lately. Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer holds the formidable task of getting the old-school Internet company back on its feet, but she's roused recent controversy with her in-office mandate. Facebook's (NASDAQ: FB  ) Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has just published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which discusses female leadership in corporate America.

Mayer and Sandberg are high-profile female leaders, and whether they're generating good press or bad press, they're receiving big press at the moment. Regardless, despite victories and lime lights, the progress of females and minorities into the highest levels of corporate America remains lacking.

Progress and problems
A Calvert Investments report released this week reveals that despite some progress since 2010, the S&P 100 still lags in factors related to women and minorities achieving positions in corporate America's boardrooms and top management positions.

Calvert's president and CEO, Barbara Krumsiek, acknowledged some important progress in the area. Still, key analysis points still underlined some glaring discrepancies. Although women now hold 19% of S&P 100 board positions, they still only represent 8% of the highest paid executives.

Although 98 of the analyzed companies have female directors and 86 have minority directors, only 37 have minority women on their boards.

On the other hand, heartening signs of progress included increasing numbers of companies with diversity initiatives, best practices, and outreach efforts to recruit women and minorities. Even better, 96 of the 100 companies have policies forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation, and increasingly offer domestic partner benefits.

The report analyzed 10 diversity criteria, and specific results may be surprising to diversity-minded investors. Too-big-to-fail banks have and continue to face plenty of flak for management styles, and to put it kindly, Wall Street and huge financiers haven't historically been known for female friendliness. Still, both JPMorganChase (NYSE: JPM  ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) ranked among the top five when it comes to diversity.

On the other hand, the bottom five included Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) , well known for its excellent management including Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett. eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY  ) also came in on the bottom of the rankings, even if memory brings to mind its longtime former female CEO Meg Whitman, who's currently working hard to turn Hewlett-Packard's corporate ship around.

There's a new sheriff in town... or not
The aforementioned Mayer and Sandberg have sparked copious conversation about what having women in leadership positions should be all about -- and what it still isn't.

From what I've gleaned so far from media (and I have yet to read the book), Sandberg's book encourages women to "lean in" to achieve in corporate settings instead of holding themselves back from taking career-building steps. She's not downplaying the difficulties and pitfalls women face, and she has been a major proponent of women's increased presence in the workforce. However, she has also been criticized for views like this: "A woman needs to combine niceness with insistence... I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to its biased rules and expectations. I know it is not a perfect answer but a means to a desirable end."

In the real world, women do have to make many difficult decisions, including the one regarding career versus personal achievements in areas like family. Meanwhile, many corporate policies may stunt their progress in attaining a healthy, forward-looking balance in two important life experiences, particularly advancing their careers.

Along those lines, Mayer's move to ban working from home hones in on that theory as many why women sacrifice one type of achievement for another. Work and the rest of life's rewards shouldn't have to be at cross-purposes.

Flexibility can help women excel since they wouldn't feel forced to give up their jobs or advancements for several years. In that light, the fact that Mayer herself was hired while pregnant and has built an adjoining nursery to her office simply sounds like a stale prevailing CEO attitude: that they deserve much more than other people due to their status.

Why diversity works
For those of us who crave more diversity in the workforce, an important modern factor that transcends beyond traditional feminism isn't that such individuals can be exactly the same as traditionally male counterparts.

A big element here is that women bring different strengths to the table, like reduced risk-taking, long-term thinking, and other factors that are backed up by studies. It would be nice to see extremely high-profile women like Sandberg and Mayer take a stand for truly shaking up the status quo in leadership positions.

Again, data and studies show that cognitive diversity -- a shoo-in when workforces include women and minorities -- actually boosts long-term business success and stock returns. Although people of any gender or race can do wonderfully or poorly at their jobs, the upshot of successful diversity is to bring far more diverse perspectives to the table in order to form the most robust, competitive companies.

The spotlight is on, but let the inner lights shine
The spotlight's currently on female heavyweights, and everybody's got their eye on people like Mayer, Whitman, and Sandberg, and whether they excel at their admittedly challenging jobs or languish. I'd venture to guess that some folks out there are hoping they will fail, which I doubt they'd admit in cocktail party conversation.

I'm personally looking forward to reading Sandberg's book, and I'm going to be on the lookout as to how Mayer's leadership will pan out for Yahoo!. Perhaps today's doubts and critiques of these women will be proven wrong.

Still, I'm hoping for more female leaders who boldly bring about positive changes, both to their companies and the promise of more diverse workforces in general. Let's not be afraid to be different, or ashamed of our individual strengths. The future leadership needs diverse, positive role models who aren't afraid to let their true lights shine.

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Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.


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  • Report this Comment On August 18, 2013, at 9:44 PM, Maverick2013 wrote:

    Just wondering if any one...........any one....had done a genuinely scientific analysis of female executive leadership RESULTS as compared to their male counterparts?? All that seems to be available in the media is studies on qualitative analysis of traits and tendencies in leadership that don't objectively relate the relative results of females in leadership roles? Do they perform as well as men?? Not, should they perform but DO THEY PERFORM??

    I know that many would opine that looking strictly at results to garner a value of women in leadership is too specific and restrictive. However, there are many, many biases and prejudices among men, as well. The perceived view is that males are unconditionally accepting of other males based solely on gender and that is a false assertion on every level. So, a study of female versus male leadership RESULTS is fair game, especially now, since we have a generation of male adults who have been nannied to the point of androgyny anyway.

    So, WTF??? Do women get the results???

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