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Q&A: How Can The Gender Gap In Corporate Suites Be Narrowed?

In Minnesota visit, author says women who reach the top take risks and have incredible resilience.

Q&A: How Can The Gender Gap In Corporate Suites Be Narrowed?
When Joann Lublin started her career at the Wall Street Journal in 1971, women journalists were a rarity at the daily newspaper. Forty-five years later, Lublin is the management news editor at the Journal, but women are a rarity in corporate suites in Minnesota and across the United States.
 
In its annual survey of Minnesota’s 100 largest public corporations, St. Catherine University found that women hold only 19.4 percent of the executive officer jobs. After those results were released in April, women who follow the numbers closely acknowledged there has been little progress in the past decade.
 
A national study, Women in the Workplace 2015, that was conducted by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org, mirrored the findings of the Minnesota study. Women are being hired in large numbers for entry-level jobs by corporations, but very few ascend to C-suite positions.
 
Prominent women leaders invited Lublin to come to Minnesota recently to share her insights about breaking through the glass ceiling. Lublin has in-depth exposure to women who’ve reached the highest rungs of the corporate ladder. She interviewed more than 50 women business leaders for her new book, “Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons From Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World.” Her book will be released in October.
 
Lublin spoke at a recent event called “Opportunity to Lead 2016,” which focused on how Twin Cities area women can address barriers preventing them from assuming key corporate jobs. Sandra Smalley-Fleming, an attorney at Fredrikson & Byron, has been convening these leadership workshops for several years. Women executives from Best Buy, Medtronic and Comcast were among the panelists at the 2016 leadership event.
 
In Minneapolis, Twin Cities Business sat down with Lublin to learn why women hold such a small portion of top corporate jobs and what can be done to come closer to gender parity. The following Q and A contains excerpts from the interview, which was edited for length and clarity.
 
TCB:  Women have been earning more college degrees than men for decades, yet women hold a small fraction of top corporate jobs in the United States. Why is that the case?
 
Joann Lublin:  It has a multi-faceted answer. One is because companies have not had a long tradition of having women in senior-level positions. Some women, essentially, give up once they get to a certain level in the corporation. They don’t see a runway ahead of them to get into senior management.
 
TCB:  If they are giving up, does that mean that they are staying in the corporation in a middle management position or do you think corporate culture in many ways is inhospitable so they may move to the nonprofit sector or start their own businesses?
 
JL:  All of the above is true. A lot of women think that you can’t possibly have a personal life and be on the P and L [profit and loss] side, having a line job. So they funnel themselves into staff roles and those do not tend to be roads to the very top of companies. Other women see more personal fulfillment in starting their own company or going the nonprofit route.
 
A study was done by McKinsey and co-sponsored by LeanIn.org, which was a study that was done for the Wall Street Journal last year. It found that the most ambitious women, in terms of wanting to get senior level positions, are women with children.
 
TCB:  You’ve talked about how all-consuming and demanding the time commitment is for many of these key jobs. Do you think these jobs have grown because of how technology has expanded and because of the 24/7 news cycle?
 
JL:  C-suite jobs are more demanding simply because shareholders’ expectations have gone up. People who are investors, particularly in publicly held companies, have higher expectations for what management is going to do for them in terms of shareholder returns. [The time demand] does, in part, depend on the corporate culture. Obviously, technology has to play a role in that, but if anything technology has made it both easier and harder to be successful at the top.  
 
TCB:  In researching your upcoming book, you interviewed women who have made it to the top of the business world. What did they do to reach that level of success?
 
JL:  In many cases, these women were mothers. And in some of those cases, their husbands took a back seat to their careers. There are three or four examples that I talk about in the book in which the husband decided to stay home and raise the children. The women acknowledge that they could not have achieved the kinds of levels that they did, particularly since many of them were CEOs, without that kind of support from their husbands. But these were never easy decisions for them to make or for their husbands to make.
 
TCB:  Are there Minnesota women in your book?
 
JL:  The book reflects interviews with 52 women, 65 percent of whom are experienced public company chief executives—both current and past. Three of those women are from the Minneapolis area. Sally Smith, the current CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings, was interviewed. The second one was Janet Dolan, who is the former chief executive of Tennant Company, and the third is Vicki Holt, who is the current CEO of Proto Labs. She is among the handful of women who have been CEOs of public companies twice. She previously was CEO of Spartech.  All three have been working mothers.
 
TCB:  Beyond having a supportive spouse, what were characteristics of the U.S. women that allowed them to get to the highest levels?
 
JL:  They had several characteristics in common. They had incredible resilience to bounce back from setbacks. In fact, that is the underlying theme of the book. What are some leadership lessons that these women derived from overcoming obstacles of one kind or another? It’s not always related to gender bias. A lot of them overcame personal setbacks. Two of the women had heart attacks at young ages. Several of them had husbands with very serious life-threatening illnesses. Others got fired from pretty high-level jobs. And the resilience and ability to bounce back was one characteristic.
 
Another characteristic was their willingness to take risks and to take the jobs that didn’t seem like a sure fire win. A third one was the willingness to move around, whether it was from company to company or role to role.
 
TCB:  It appears that the number of women in corporate positions has plateaued in recent years. Despite corporate programs supporting gender diversity, there seems to be only incremental progress. Do you see any evidence that the number of women in leadership will increase substantially in coming years?
 
JL:  Every study that I’ve read for the book, some of which I quote in the book, suggest we are looking at decades before we are going to see anything close to gender parity in the executive suite. But I think what gives me hope and optimism is that there are a number of very committed women in senior level jobs who believe this is part of their role in life to make it happen for younger, less senior women.
 
 
TCB:  There are a lot of young women graduating with business degrees, and many see themselves working in corporations. Based on everything you’ve learned about the corporate world, do you have any advice for these young women?
 
JL:  Number one is to have both short- and long-term career goals in mind. Make sure that at every step of the way they not only have mentors, but they have sponsors.
 
A mentor is somebody who can guide you and advise you. But a sponsor is someone who is willing to put their own personal and professional reputation on the line in favor of your advancement. And that is very different and actually very risky from the sponsor’s standpoint. But in order to win sponsorship, you have to have something to give back. It has to be a two-way relationship.
 
TCB:  Do you have other observations you’d like to share with women and men who want to see more women in leadership roles?
 
JL:  The advancement of women into the upper ranks of companies is ultimately a win-win for the companies. There has been study after study that has shown that the higher the proportion of women in senior leadership positions in companies, the greater the financial results are and the returns for shareholders.
 
I also think [advancing women] is a responsibility that belongs to men and women alike. Until it is seen that way, it will continue to be pigeonholed as her problem and not our problem.

See related stories:
Why Are Women Bypassing C-Suite Jobs?
All In: Hiring Women Executives
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