What changes with women in the boardroom?

CNN
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - 9:45am

Just as I began covering parenting and women for CNN, a college friend pointed out that the company where he's president is far outside the norm: eight of the company's 15 executives are women.

Eight out of 15? That's a management ratio rarely seen in corporate America -- a ratio this women's issues reporter dreams of for every company.

"We were at a meeting the other day, and there (were), I counted, 34 people in this big conference room, executives at companies ... There were four women," said Jennifer Keough, one of the eight female executives at the legal services firm Garden City Group. "Four women."

"When it's just us and it's just (Garden City Group), it's so natural that I don't really notice it, but when you're out in society and working with other executives ... it's amazing," said Keough, who's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Amazing indeed, especially when you look at the numbers, and the extensive research that has been done over the past decade showing that more women in management is good for a company's bottom line.

Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on expanding opportunities for women in the workplace, conducted the first study looking at whether companies with more women in senior leadership roles perform better financially, according to Ilene Lang, the group's president and chief executive officer. That was back in 2004.

"We found a very strong correlation," Lang said. The organization also found positive results years later when it studied the financial impact of having women on boards of directors, she said.

Since then, a host of other companies and organizations have conducted similar research -- Ernst & Young, McKinsey & Company and the International Monetary Fund -- and all have come up with nearly the same results, Lang said.

"It's pretty well established that companies that have more women in their senior leadership on average financially outperform companies with fewer women, and similarly in their board of directors," Lang said. "So, as we look at that, we say ... if this is excellent, why do we not have more women in senior leadership?"

What does it feel like, I wondered, to work for a company where women and men are side-by-side as senior managers?

Flexibility and autonomy

I heard all about it from three of Garden City Group's top female executives in a 90-minute, wide-ranging conversation at the company's New York offices.

Mentoring young women, especially on work-life balance, is one of Karen Shaer's top roles at the company, said the senior executive vice president and general counsel and mother of two college-age kids.

Garden City Group has 1,500 people in 10 offices helping to administer class-action lawsuits and bankruptcy matters. But flexibility and autonomy, "the two pillars," as Shaer calls them, are built into the culture in her company. Shaer, a former federal prosecutor, said more women would stay and eventually get to the top at their respective organizations If other companies followed suit.

"Let's just use the investment banking world," said Shaer, noting how many "incredibly talented" women didn't stay in the field, in part because of the inability to balance work and family.

"It used to make me crazy ... I almost wanted to go in to Goldman Sachs and basically say, 'Are you kidding me? Do you honestly believe that you can't get this done in a more flexible fashion?'"

Finding ways to retain women can be good for business, too.

A few years ago, some companies began to question whether the economic downturn would have become so dire if more women had been in decision-making roles on Wall Street. According to research I showcased at the time, women-owned hedge funds lost less during the downturn than male-owned hedge funds.

Women approach complex decisions differently than men, said Marcia Reynolds, author of "Wander Women: How High Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction."

"I think it's because we're considering more connections so the decision is like how many people will it really affect," said Reynolds, who travels the world working with companies on leadership coaching and training.

"It's not that we're slower decision makers, we just take more into consideration, and in senior positions, that's really important that somebody's in the room saying, 'Whoa, wait a second. Let's look at the broader impact.' "

Shandy Garr, vice president and managing director of Garden City Group, said women supporting women is a key part of the company's success. Since 2009, its revenues doubled to now more than $200 million.

"I think because there are so many of us that we are constantly working toward trying to help each other with our next accomplishment," said Garr, a single mom who started with the company nearly 25 years ago as a part-time processor.

Garr said she could reach out to her female colleagues, especially Shaer and Keough, no matter the day, no matter the hour. "I could send them e-mails on Saturdays or Sundays. 'Do you have a couple of minutes? I need to run something by you. Can we talk?' "

Keough said one of the ways she helps other women to "lean in" -- she liked Sheryl Sandberg's book -- is by encouraging them to not be afraid to take on a task, speech or project, and "giving them the seat at the table."

"I just had the experience in Washington, D.C. Instead of just going myself ... I brought the person who was doing the work on a day-to-day basis. I could have had her get me ready ... and show up and do it," Keough said, "but instead ... she did the presentation with me so that was a first for her."

"People have done things like that for me all along and so I think it's important to give back,"

The right seat on the bus

Shaer said just talking about the work-family juggle can help women.

"So many people don't," she said. She told the story of a conference call while she worked at another company, where the leadership team was mostly men.

She told her colleagues she would not be able to participate in the next call because she needed to attend her daughter's kindergarten graduation. (Yes, there is such a thing -- I've been to two of them!)

"When I hung up the phone, I got, like, four phone calls. I got private e-mails. I had one guy call me and say, 'Good for you. I'm on my second wife. It took me that long to realize that was important.' "

"A friend of mine, she said, 'I would have said I have an important doctor's appointment,' " Shaer said. "You know it didn't occur to me. I'm not sure why it didn't occur to me to just let it out there, but I have taken that lesson ... and I would say I talk about it and I help people problem-solve around it and I try to be supportive around it, and I think that's a really important part."

Shaer, Keough and Garr said a culture of women helping women, male executives who "get it" and women being valued for their skills allows their company to retain more women. That means more women working at the company overall, and ultimately, more women in management. But what's it going to take to get more companies to see the benefits of women in leadership alongside men?

"Companies need to be very intentional about this, and they have to second guess everything," said Lang of the nonprofit Catalyst.

She said they have to ask themselves the following: "If I don't see 50% of women sitting around this table, then there's something wrong with the talent development and performance evaluation programs and policies that we have at this organization."

Garr of Garden City Group believes that message is starting to get out, and she's hearing it from women in other workplaces. "They're starting to ask their companies to do the same thing that we're doing," she said.

Keough said that eight out of 15 women in the board room shouldn't seem like an anomaly.

"I think it has to become the expectation from the time little girls are raised," she said.

She coined a phrase that her colleagues use often -- finding the "right seat on the bus" for every person at every company, including women.

"If we stick for a moment with the bus analogy, we have to find ways for people to value all the seats on the bus and to come up with ways to encourage people to stay on it and help make that happen," Shaer said.

"A lot of women I know left, let's say, a law firm, because they felt like the mommy track was meaningless. Well, what if (there's) another seat on the bus, and it's valued?"

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