Getting More Women into Senior Management

05/29/2015 04:58 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

In my first job out of college, in the late '70s, I was the only woman on the manufacturing floor as a production manager at General Motors. It didn't take long to realize that I should have asked a few more questions during my job interview. I knew I was in for a challenge the first day I walked into the plant, and everything and everyone stopped. It was like one of those hushed movie moments. Everyone stared at me. At first I thought there was something wrong with my appearance, but soon realized I was the first and only woman who stepped on the production floor for GM who served in a management role. My second day on the job, someone started a fire in my wastebasket. Later that same day, someone sabotaged all the parts that were coming down the assembly line in my area.

I'd taken the job because I knew it would be challenging. But many of the challenges I faced had nothing to do with learning to do my actual job. One of the first things I had to do was prove my worth to people who believed I had no business on a manufacturing floor.

We've come a long way since then -- or have we? We've been talking about how to get more women in leadership roles for, literally, decades. The term "glass ceiling" was coined more than 30 years ago. And yet women still hold less than 20 percent of the seats on corporate boards at S&P 500 companies. Why?

I met with a CEO recently who said he was trying to promote more women and increase the diversity of his leadership team, but nothing seemed to be happening. In fact, they were actually going backwards -- the only woman on his leadership team had just resigned. Add to that, after a decade on top of the market, they were losing market share to a competitor. The desire was there, and the business need was urgent, but it wasn't happening. And the CEO asked me why.

"I've got good news for you," I said. "I've found the problem and a significant part of this issue is you."

The CEO sat up in his chair in disbelief. "Tell me more."

I said, "You have made it clear to leaders throughout the organization that diversity is a priority, but this expectation had no teeth. And within your own team, you simply didn't walk the talk with the only woman on your executive team -- and she just gave you her resignation. This leads me to believe that while you speak about the importance for diversity and gender balanced teams, I don't see that really happening."

I've worked with dozens of companies like this. Far too many business leaders are, with the best intentions, failing to put the necessary muscle behind efforts to promote more women. Those organizations that understand the business imperative for gender-balanced teams and inclusive cultures realize that it a three-legged solution: men, women, and organization all have a part to play. Yet to move beyond conversation to action there are four things organizations corporate leaders can do to finally, after decades of talk, actually get something done on this issue:

1. Set clear, numerical goals. Call them quotas if you want, but there's simply no other way to overcome entrenched biases than to set clear goals and hold leaders accountable for meeting them. What would happen if you gave your sales team an expectation that they'd increase sales, but didn't tell them by how much, or when you were going to evaluate their progress? Corporate boards in Europe have far more women than boards in the U.S., not because Europe is more progressive than we are, but because multiple European countries, including, most recently, Germany, have passed laws requiring 30-40 percent of board seats to go to women. We could pass a similar law here -- or corporate leaders could set enforceable goals themselves. I would rather see corporate leaders step up than have to rely on government action.

2. Show your commitment through actions, not words. The CEO and other top leaders should sit on the committee responsible for developing diverse slates for promotions and for new hires. If the boss isn't visibly committed, it's not going to happen. That's what I told that CEO who asked me for help -- and his executive team is now 25 percent female.

Given the state of corporate leadership today, however, just putting the executive team front and center on this issue won't do it. You also need to think about who's on the front lines doing your recruiting, your hiring, and your development of new leaders. Sending three middle-aged white men in suits to a college campus to recruit will probably net you a bunch of resumes from young white men. It matters who makes the ask -- make sure the future leaders you want can see themselves in the current leaders who are reaching out to them.

3. Broaden criteria when necessary. When companies look for someone to fill a board seat, they usually look for a CEO. That expectation automatically eliminates 90 percent of the women in the market. Corporate leaders need to start thinking more broadly about the actual skill sets they need on their boards. I would argue that there's a real need for people with experience in HR, in IT, in infrastructure -- and you can find women who have all of these competencies. There's no reason your board has to be made up of entirely CEOs and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that diversity of experience, as well as other kinds of diversity, brings important benefits to boards.

The same goes for other leadership roles. Research has shown that women tend to take job descriptions at face value, and not apply for positions if they don't have the skills or experience listed, while men are more likely to reach for jobs they might be under-qualified for. Rewriting job descriptions to emphasize cognitive skills over specific types of experience could go a long way to encouraging more women to apply for positions that would challenge them and put them on the executive track. Changes like this would also force companies to be more specific and thoughtful about what skills they really need to hire for.

4. Build a culture of inclusion and innovation. This is as broad as building and sustaining an inclusive, collaborative culture and rethinking old systems and processes such as recruitment, performance management, succession planning, and talent development to ensure there is a non-biased and consistent process to identify, develop, and advance leaders in their organization. But it's also as narrow as individual male leaders deciding to serve as champions for change. That CEO I worked with was surprised when the only woman on his executive team left the organization. He shouldn't have been. At meetings, she consistently found it difficult to get the floor. Often, she'd make a point, nobody would acknowledge it -- and then three minutes later, and one of the men at the table would make the same point and get all the credit. No wonder she left! It was the CEO's responsibility to make sure her voice was heard and her contributions were acknowledged.

The obstacles women face in today's workplaces tend to be a lot subtler than a fire in a wastebasket. If we want to finally make real progress on promoting more women, after decades of talking about it, men, women and organizations all need to step up and take decisive action to make it happen.