Glass ceiling keeping women from reaching top positions in US firms

28 September 2016 5 min. read
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A new study reveals that only 5% of CEO positions and 12% of CFO positions at the top 1,000 companies in the US are occupied by women. Women make up just 24% of the C-Suite across the surveyed companies, with most acquiring access by holding CHRO positions.

New analysis from consultancy Korn Ferry finds that women are unlikely to rise to the top level of US corporations, with few receiving C-suite roles compared to men. Furthermore, other strategy and key decision-making roles are also being denied to them in the current business environment. The lack of opportunities for women to gain key decision-making positions is not merely bad for aspiring female professionals, but also for business performance more generally. One study, for instance, found that a lack of female leaders at board level is costing top firms in the US, UK and India up to $655 billion; another recent report, by consultancy BCG, highlighted that diversity in general improves business performance across companies. Globally, a lack of female inclusion in the workplace costs the economy an estimated $12 trillion.

Korn Ferry's analysis, conducted in June of this year, involved the largest 1,000 US-based companies by revenue, and provides an examination of C-suite titles held by women across six industries. The study notes that, across all industries and positions, women are long shot from C-Suite parity: only 24% of positions are occupied by women, with a strong concentration in human resources and marketing-related positions.

C-Suite breakdown

The report relates that women have the worst chance at reaching the corporate pinnacle – CEO. Across all firms surveyed, only 5% have a woman CEO – a stat which remains unchanged from last year. The Life Sciences sector has the lowest number of women CEOs, with less than 1% of surveyed companies boasting a female CEO; the Consumer sector had the highest number of women CEO's, at 9%. The Energy sector comes in second place, at 6%, while Industrials comes in a tad below average, at 4%. Korn Ferry Managing Principal Peggy Hazard, remarking on the statistics, said, “Study after study shows that diverse senior teams provide better corporate results. Having more women at the top is a priority for our clients. However, the needle is not moving as quickly as any of us would like to see.”

Women in the C Suite

Women were more likely to attain control of a company’s money supply, with 12% of CFO positions in the hands of women. The Consumer sector, again, had the highest female representation, with 15%, while Energy, Financials and Life Sciences were all below average, at 10%, 9% and 9% respectively.

Remarking on the number of women in CFO roles, Korn Ferry Global Financial Officer Practice Leader Bryan Proctor explained that the lack of female advancement to top positions is a result of fewer opportunities to demonstrate leadership – such as international assignments and operational roles. “While the organisation is responsible for offering these career-advancing assignments and opportunities to high-potential females, we have found that qualified women who proactively seek out these roles and experiences are increasingly being recognised and rewarded.”

More women are reaching the position of Chief Information Officers (CIO), with about 19% of all positions occupied by women. The Energy industry has the highest level of woman CIOs, 35%, while the lowest reported level was in the Technology sector, at 11%. Life Sciences outperformed the average, with 22% of CIO positions in female hands.

The Chief Marketing Officer position, while boasting more women than CEO, CFO and CIO positions (at 29%) remains relatively fragmented: 11% of CMO positions at Energy companies were under female leadership compared to a much higher 39% at Financial companies.

The one C-Suite position where women outnumber men is that of Chief Human Resources Officer. In total, 55% of CHRO positions are held by women. Financials and Technology had the largest proportion of female CHROs, with 69% and 63% respectively, while the Life Sciences and Consumer sectors lagged somewhat, at 47% and 48% respectively. 

Joseph McCabe, Vice Chairman in Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise, commented, “In our research, we find that women rank higher on key competencies needed in the CHRO role such as collaboration and negotiation skills, the ability to balance multiple constituencies and an appreciation for the dynamics of the overall business. Interestingly other Korn Ferry research shows a distinct correlation between CEO and CHRO competencies, but women are still not making it to the very top spot at the rate they should.”

Companies actively seeking gender diversity in their organisation, and ultimately in their top-level leadership, can do so by monitoring their recruitment pipeline from entry to leadership level, by hiring experienced women from outside to fill more senior roles, and by offering formal advancement programs to its female staff. In the latter case, for example, Mace recently launched its Women of the Future program, while Gapgemini set up a women’s networking platform called TechFuture Women’s Network.