A 2004 report by Catalyst, a nonprofit that advocates for women in business, showed Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams had 35 percent higher return on equity than those with the lowest women’s representation.
Those who advocate for women in the corporate world blame the lack of progress on reasons ranging from societal pressures to sexism to not enough companies developing women’s leadership potential.
Some executives say women need to make their ambitions known. Kathy Waller, vice president and controller at Coca-Cola Co. and chair of the company’s women’s leadership council, said that lesson is at the forefront when she reflects on her own career.
“I had a manager who was very supportive,” Waller said. “I asked him a question back when I was manager of the Africa group, I asked if I ever could be considered” for the job of director of financial reporting.
“His answer was surprise. He didn’t think I’d ever be interested in that job,” she said. “We talked about what it takes.” And once the job opened up, Waller got it.
“I don’t think there’s any grand conspiracy going on,” she said. “But if you’ve never had the conversation about why you’re interested in something or what you want to do, people can’t read your mind.”
One reason companies don’t have more female executives may be “there’s not enough women in the pipeline, and we need to figure out how to build that pipeline,” said McGaughey, who is also a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge.
Among executive officers of Fortune 500 companies in Georgia, 12 percent are women, according to McGaughey. Nationally, it’s 14.1 percent, according to a 2011 report from Catalyst.
Women made up nearly half of the labor force last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But there have been some advances in corporate boardrooms. In a study of Georgia public companies this year, the Board of Directors Network found that 56 percent of them had at least one woman on the board — the first time above 50 percent in the 19 years the organization has measured the progress.
Yet women still hold less than 10 percent of the board seats at Georgia public companies, the study found.
“We still have a way to go, both in board and executive-level positions for women, but this is true all over the U.S.,” said Cynthia Coker, founder of Atlanta executive search firm Asocia Executives.
Colleen O’Neill, a senior partner at consulting firm Mercer, said “there’s been tremendous progress” for women in entry levels and managerial levels, and more women are earning graduate degrees. The difficulty is making the jump from manager level to executive, said O’Neill, who is based in Atlanta and advises companies on leadership development. Companies’ steps today may turn into results at the executive level 10 years from now, she said.
Of course, some women have already found success. High-profile female executives in Georgia include Carol Tomé, chief financial officer of Home Depot, and Penny McIntyre, group president of office products at Newell Rubbermaid.
Women are also seen as more prominent in nonprofit leadership positions, such as at Atlanta-based humanitarian organization CARE, whose chief executive is Helene Gayle. That may be because it’s a smaller time commitment, said McGaughey of the Board of Directors Network.
Research by Mercer has shown that 70 percent of U.S. companies did not have a clear philosophy or strategy for women’s leadership development. Some Atlanta area companies are among those that have developed programs aimed at women.
At the Coca-Cola Co., chief executive Muhtar Kent set a goal of having women make up 50 percent of senior leadership positions by 2020. Two of the 17 named executive officers listed in the company’s most recent annual report are women. Separately, the company plans to add more women to the board, which now has two women out of 16 directors.
For Coke, the effort is intertwined with the company’s business strategy of supporting women entrepreneurs and driving more purchases of its products by women.
“Women’s economic empowerment and entrepreneurial growth will drive the world’s economy in the years ahead,” Kent said during a speech to the Atlanta Women’s Foundation in October. “Gender equality is not only a moral obligation. It’s extremely smart economics.”
At Coke, a women’s leadership council develops strategies to prepare more women for general management positions, with Kent’s initiative focused on high-level jobs in areas that help drive revenue, Waller said. The positions most females hold at companies tend to be in functional roles such as in human resources, finance or legal departments, she said.
In Europe, legislation in some countries has set quotas for the percentage of women on boards.
In the U.S., a campaign called 2020 Women on Boards that launched in Boston aims to increase the percentage of women on corporate boards to 20 percent or higher by 2020.
“We’re kind of at an inflection point right now, that there’s more pressure on boards and a commitment at the executive level to have more gender parity,” Mercer’s O’Neill said.
“Coke right now is in the forefront, but we may see more companies [set targets publicly] because of shareholder pressure,” she said.
Sandy Springs-based UPS also has a women’s leadership development initiative. “Historically, transportation has been more of a male-dominated work environment, and so we have looked at ways to bring women in management together,” said UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg.
The program’s goals are to improve retention of women at supervisor and manager levels, develop women in management to improve the pipeline of talent for higher positions and position UPS for opportunities with women entrepreneurs.
In spite of some of the efforts, there has been slow progress.
Women face various obstacles in their rise to the top, so having the right guidance can be key.
Tomé of Home Depot said Faye Wilson, a former company board member, was a valuable mentor to her.
“She taught me a lot about not assimilating, about being authentic, and yet how to really survive in an environment that’s heavily male-dominated,” Tomé said during a recent event held by the Atlanta chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women. She said in honor of Wilson, she created the Velvet Hammers, a resource group for women at Home Depot.
O’Neill said one drawback for women is they often have mentors but don’t have sponsors — advocates at the company who will help them move ahead. Employees may easily find mentors through formal programs, but they must “earn” the support of a sponsor.
“As a rule, men have more confidence in their capabilities and ambitions,” O’Neill said. “A man, if he sees a job ahead and he thinks he has maybe half the skills he needs, he’ll raise his hand and say, ‘I want that job and I want to apply for that job.’ ” A woman will wait “until she has all the skills, before she raises her hand.”
Coke’s Waller also said mobility to travel frequently for work or to relocate is often seen as a significant roadblock for women considering senior leadership positions, because women often still carry most of the responsibility for the home.
Erin Wolf, managing partner of Suite Track, a company that develops female leaders, said women may also encounter sexism in the workplace, some of it inadvertent, such as a CEO who may look to promote a man who reminds him of himself.
Asocia’s Coker and others say research has shown that companies can benefit from having more women in leadership and on boards.
To Coker, a key reason that there aren’t more women in executive offices at major corporations is that there are “no penalties for lack of diversity” at companies.
Some “don’t see gender diversity as critical to companies’ success,” she said.
Women in the top ranks
Number of women on boards of directors and women executive officers at top Georgia companies
Company Directors, Directors, Executive Executive
total women officers, officers,
Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. 12 4 5 1
United Parcel Service Inc. 12 3 11 2
Aflac Inc. 15 2 20 5
The Coca-Cola Co. 16 2 17 2
The Southern Co. 13 2 11 1
Newell Rubbermaid Inc. 12 2 12 1
The Home Depot Inc. 10 2 8 1
Delta Air Lines Inc. 12 2 7 0
Genuine Parts Co. 12 2 5 0
Mohawk Industries Inc. 10 2 8 0
NCR Corp. 7 1 8 2
AGCO Corp. 11 1 11 1
SunTrust Banks Inc. 16 1 10 0
Source: Board of Directors Network annual study, October 2011