Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Criteria for Promotability to the C-Suite

At a recent event of the "When She Speaks" series (an excellent monthly women's event highlighting various speakers and panels, sponsored by Schwab and IBM and open to all businesswomen), Evelyn Williams, a Stanford Business School professor, mentioned a recent study by Charles O’Reilly on promotability. In that study, he found that the most important criteria for selecting top-level executives is the number of hours worked. Needless to say, this helps explain why we see so few women at the top of corporations - women choose these mega-schedules less often than men. There was a general nod of agreement in the room of 50 businesswomen. To the room, this criteria seemed fair and reasonable.

While 100 hour workweeks may seem necessary to gain seniority, organizations risk missing out on womens’ unique perspectives and leaderships skills if they place too much value on an unrelenting workpace.

•In a Catalyst study, Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentage of women on their boards performed significantly better financially than those companies with the fewest women on their board: 53% higher return on equity, and 66% higher return on capital.
•A recent Washington Post article by Deborah Spar argued that the financial crisis might have been averted if more women had been in charge.
•And from Kristof’s recent New York Times editorial, “There seems to be a strong consensus that diverse groups perform better at problem solving” than homogeneous groups, Lu Hong and Scott E. Page wrote in The Journal of Economic Theory, summarizing the research in the field.

Marie Wilson provides an excellent outline of the distinct benefits of women’s leadership in her book "Closing the Leadership Gap, Add Women, Change Everything”. She cites Sally Helgeson's research on women’s greater focus on the ecology of leadership and managing for the long range – clearly skills that have been lacking in the finance and auto manufacturing industries of late.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

White House Task Force on Women: Yes or No

There are new White House rumblings about creating a task force on women. Many groups, including Women Count and The White House Project have called on the White House variously to create a Presidential Commission on Women or a Woman's Office at the White House. In theory, this is a good idea. We need talented folks ensuring that women's advancement is appropriately framed, monitored, and promoted. In practice, what we most need is passionate advocates for women to be present when all decisions, large and small are made, ie, who is assigned to head up bank nationalization, how are financial industry risk tolerances redefined for a new era, or who is invited to the next White House Saturday night cocktail party? A women's task force, office or commission, by definition, would not be invited to all important meetings, unless the specific topic is women.

I'm in favor of groups whose purpose is advancing women's interests and keeping their perspectives front and center. I'm concerned if these groups become a substitute for what really matters: a seat at every table. A group that is assigned to represent women's interests seems inherently marginal to the need for a constant presence. Instead, or perhaps, in addition, Obama and Biden need to ensure that every meeting and important decision are influenced by persons who are deeply committed to and willing to spend their political capital on the advancement and inclusion of women.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

More Sanchez Sisters; Fewer Lehman Brothers

Quoting from Kristof’s op-ed on Februay 8, “At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, some of the most interesting discussions revolved around whether we would be in the same mess today if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters.” It should go without saying that many have mused similar counterfactuals about other crises, eg, would the Middle East have such serious religious and ethnic conflict if women held over 40% of all political positions. Or let’s indulge in a domestic kissing-cousin hypothetical: would the US have invaded Iraq if 40% or more of our federal elected officials were women?

Back to the evidence and again lifting from Kristof’s op-ed, “there seems to be a strong consensus that diverse groups perform better at problem solving” than homogeneous groups, Lu Hong and Scott E. Page wrote in The Journal of Economic Theory, summarizing the research in the field.”

Not usually one to gainsay economists and their tepid if properly modest conclusions, there is a large (and growing) body of evidence which leads to an obvious conclusion: we need more women in every crook and cranny where important decisions are made. Rather than cite all the evidence, eg, that women are more trusted by voters than men (regardless of whether they are in fact more deserving of this trust), or women’s barriers to greater leadership, let’s look at what works in getting more women into leadership positions – enhanced networks, improved skills, and powerful mentors. Groups that provide these tools, like Emerge America and Catalyst, are seeing forward strides for women. More of that.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Emerge Reaches Tipping Point in Many States

In our 3rd convening of Emerge Affiliates from our eight states, I led a visioning exercise to come up with future headlines for 5, 10 and 25 years from now. One of my favorites was an imagined headline in the National Enquirer: “Emerge Graduate Gives Birth to Five-headed Baby”. When Emerge bumps news of an Elvis sighting, you know it is having huge impact. Other favorite headlines included: “10,000 Women Gather for Emerge Convention”, “Half of Democratic Governors Across the States are Emerge Graduates”, “Emerge Credited with Filling Over Half of All Elected Positions with Women”.

After hearing updates from Emerge leadership in our states, I realized we already have a perfect headline: “Emerge Reaches Tipping Point in Many States”. In Nevada, our Executive Director, Erin Bilbray Kohn was elected to be the national committeewoman to the DNC, unexpectantly jumping ahead of many other candidates. In Maine, where three Emerge alumnae have been elected to the House of Representatives, top elected officials and party leaders drive endless hours to present to the Emerge class. In Massachusetts, our Executive Director was chosen by the party to co-chair a woman’s candidate recruitment program. And in Arizona, every elected Democratic woman is assumed to be an Emerge graduate.

As always, I was very engaged by Emerge’s state leaders and the reasons they are so committed to Emerge's work. One woman told us about her dream of moving to California at age 16, not to surf, but to work with Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta. She movingly recollected how she missed her father for most of her childhood as the daughter of a migrant worker. I also marvel at the innovation and commitment to serve diverse needs. Emerge New Mexico had its first deaf participant this year and raised a lot of additional money to hire multiple sign language interpreters for the seven full weekends and their events throughout the year. I'm looking forward to that headline “Emerge Alumna Serves as First Deaf Member of the US Congress."