We’ve come a long way, baby?

We’ve come a long way, baby?

St. Kate’s uses research to shine a light on women’s progress in corporate leadership.
By Julie Michener

The glass ceiling is still firmly in place. And three of our own professors point to their research as they encourage companies to shatter it once and for all.

One step forward, two steps back

Joann Bangs, dean of the School of Business and Professional Studies, and Rebecca Hawthorne, director of the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership program, have spent the last six years examining women’s presence on corporate boards and in executive suites at Minnesota’s top 100 publicly traded companies. Their findings, produced annually as the Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership, reflect a modicum of progress, but more so highlight the work that remains to achieve true critical mass of women leaders.

For 2013, the Census reported 119 women sat on corporate boards and seven held the CEO title. Compared to the first Census in 2008, Minnesota added only two board members and three CEOs. In between, the numbers waivered up and down.

“The gender composition of boards and senior executive teams signals a company’s commitment to inclusive leadership,” says Bangs in a recent Census Q&A. And in too many organizations, the boardroom door still reads “Men only.”

Single digit success

Meanwhile, Sarah Rand, assistant professor of marketing and management, is pushing to increase gender diversity in executive positions. Her recent research echoes Bangs’ and Hawthorne’s Census results and suggests companies must work harder to help women ascend the corporate ladder.

In 2012, Rand surveyed eight company- sponsored women’s networks across the country to understand how involvement in those groups affects career progression. Her findings were sobering. While 60 percent of the 426 respondents said that career advancement was a primary function of their women’s network, only 36 percent believed it was effective in actually doing so. Even worse, just 5 percent said their career progression was directly linked to their participation in a network.

The silver lining

While neither the Census nor Rand’s survey show marked growth in women’s leadership and advancement, just getting the data in front of corporate executives is creating action. Rand shared her results with some of Minnesota’s largest companies, who have since begun to implement new tactics — building upward mobility plans, aligning professional development with business goals and establishing benchmarks to measure progress — in an effort to build clear pathways for women to become strong leaders.

“Promoting women should be viewed as a strategic business objective and top executives — both women and men — need to be involved,” she says. For Bangs and Hawthorne, their Census work continues to challenge Minnesota’s top executives to leverage the dividends — qualitative and quantitative — of gender diversity in senior management.

The 2014 Census, released in April 2015 as a special insert to Twin Cities Business Magazine, features the work of three CEOs — all men — in advancing women to leadership roles. “It’s incredibly encouraging to hear male executives speak out about the importance of women in leadership and the work they’re doing to support it. What a powerful example for peer companies,” Hawthorne states.

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