Harvard Business Review's Best Performing CEOs in the World list came out a few weeks ago with a stark but, unfortunately, unsurprising statistic: Like in 2014, only two women made the list.
This year, HBR tweaked the annual list by considering "a measurement of each company's environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance" – essentially, the social responsibility of each company, alongside the usual financial signifiers.
Debra Cafaro, CEO of Ventas, a financial services company, and Carol Meyrowitz, CEO of TJX, retail, came in at 47 and 82, respectively, out of 100.
These numbers are no fluke of the data. Last year, HBR reported that only 3% of the CEOs they studied were female. Skillsoft, an educational technology company, recently released a survey that states that 86% of respondents say men still rule the C-suite.
HR Dive reached out to Priti Shah, the vice president of leadership product strategy and corporate development for Skillsoft, to discuss the imbalance and what companies can do so more women reach the boardroom.
Why women aren't at the top
Many seem to recognize that an imbalance exists. What's harder is to discern a reason for it – often because there is no one reason why women aren't reaching the C-suite, Shah said.
"It's not because women are not smart and not willing to work hard — it's that the pipeline doesn't exist," she said. "Until boardrooms make the pipeline a priority for mixed genders, you are going to continue to see this."
While companies make headlines these days for instituting diversity programs, many of those don’t focus specifically on leadership, Shah said. Empowering women managers who are interested in reaching the next step is a key way to create this pipeline.
Shah's answer to this is the Women in Action Leadership Program, a learning program that is designed to help women mangers at every level by being accessible and time efficient. Creating leadership learning opportunities that are flexible enough to meet an employee's needs and solid enough that a young manager could bring their new skills to the workplace is one way to ensure women can move up, Shah said. Above all, it needs to be accessible to the lowest management position.
About the tech industry
"I truly believe I see a cross-section of women across all industries being represented," Shah said. "From technology to healthcare, I've seen a really good representation of leaders … just not right in the C-suite."
Tech firms have gotten a particularly bad rap for lack of diversity due to its supposed "boy’s club” mentality and lack of mentoring programs, especially for women leaders. Shah herself, a longtime member of the tech field, remembered meetings where she was the only woman present. But notable women in the industry, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, have become strong voices and champions for change, bringing the issue to the attention of boardrooms across the country.
"The institution of formal mentoring and sponsoring programs will slowly and surely move the dial," Shah said. "That's what I'm hoping for."
The place of Big Data and work flexibility
Big Data has garnered some attention as a potential way to end biases in recruiting, but Shah notes that companies can also use it to analyze the effectiveness of mentorship programs.
Data can be used to understand where a company has been successful, what a company currently has as far as leadership training programs, and what actually resulted from those programs, eventually allowing companies to know how long programs take to work and which ones actually brought more women to leadership roles.
"Now that we can track it and analyze it, Big Data will give HR managers the data they need to take to the executives and say 'There's something very, very wrong,' " Shah said.
But other solutions rely on more qualitative observations and reactions. Work-life balance continues to be a struggle for women as they climb the corporate ladder, she said. Having programs in place that particularly allow parents greater flexibility will keep them in the workforce in the long-run and create more opportunities for women to reach the C-suite.
Above all, companies need to start placing emphasis on results rather than time spent in the office, Shah noted. Creative solutions, from telecommuting and flexible hours to "job-sharing," where two new mothers who do the same job can share the workload over the course of the day, will eventually create more balance in the boardroom and beyond.