Challenges Persist for Women Breaking C-Suite Glass Ceiling

Women are increasingly moving up the corporate ladder and into the coveted C-suite, but employers should continue efforts to provide career development to ensure that progress continues. That’s the advice from several consultants as well as a leading software company.

Leaders need to understand that having female executives in a company is not only "nice to have" but also a competitive advantage that affects the bottom line, Jewell Parkinson, senior vice president and head of human resources for SAP North America, told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail.

The number of women taking over the role of chief executive officer increased for the third consecutive year in 2016, according to data from global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Of the 1,043 replacement CEOs recorded in 2016, 193—or 18.5 percent—were women. In 2015 only 15 percent of replacement CEOs were women.

The CEO replacement rate among women has grown substantially since 2013, when women accounted for 11 percent of the 977 new CEOs announced by U.S.-based companies, Challenger, Gray & Christmas found.

A combination of strategies are likely at play, John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told Bloomberg BNA. Companies are trying to diversify leadership, and talented people are rising to the top of their organizations, he said. Companies and executive boards are saying that diversity matters so "let’s just change," but the rate of change can at times be "glacial," Challenger said.

"If you really peel the onion back, women may be making it to the C-suite, but they’re doing it in HR. That’s the lowest-risk job," Mara Swan, executive vice president of global strategy and talent for consultancy Manpower Group, told Bloomberg BNA.

And the position of chief human resources officer comes with its own glass ceiling because it doesn’t often lead to the position of CEO. "I don’t think that’s real progress," Swan said. Women who really represent second-generation diversity should be in jobs that put them in the pipeline to eventually be CEO, she said.

Women in traditional sectors of a business, such as marketing, sales or HR and administration, are also at a greater risk of being replaced by future automation and technology, Swan said. The future of work is changing in a way that may stall women’s progress.

Swan recommended that employers create strategies for looking at the jobs they will need in the future. "If you are focusing your strategy on where you are operating today you’ll find yourself five paces behind where you started," she said. Employers and HR can’t just focus on employees’ skill sets, they need to assess people for "learnability," and adaptability to developing new skills, Swan said.

This change in focus "can be the great gender equalizer" for women advancing to the C-suite, Swan said. Companies will need to consider who in leadership has that kind of adaptability and flexibility and then invest in them as they acquire the technical skill sets needed going forward, she said. 

Parkinson pointed to a working paper from the Peterson Institute for International Economics on gender diversity, which found that having women in the C-suite boosts company profitability. Going from no women in corporate leadership (the CEO, the board, and other C-suite positions) to a 30 percent female lineup is associated with a one-percentage-point increase in net margin, according to the Peterson Institute study. That translates to a 15 percent increase in profitability for a typical firm, Parkinson said.

SAP has also found its own success in promoting women to leadership roles. The technology provider set a goal in 2012 of having 25 percent of management globally be women by the end of 2017, and is "on a path to hit that goal," Parkinson said. As the company has promoted women, it has also experienced "significant growth in profitability and margin."

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