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Behind the Numbers

St. Catherine University professors weigh significance of women’s roles in business.

For each of the past six years, St. Catherine University professors Rebecca Hawthorne and Joann Bangs have researched women’s representation in the boardrooms and executive suites of Minnesota’s largest 100 public companies.

The Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership is part of a national body of research compiled by the InterOrganization Network (ION) from 18 regions across the country.

WHAT IS THE GOOD NEWS THIS YEAR?
Rebecca Hawthorne: For the first time, the overall net percentage of both women on boards and in executive positions has increased. In addition, for the past couple of years we've seen marked improvement in the number of women executive officers, despite fewer executive positions overall.

WHY SHOULD PEOPLE PAY ATTENTION TO THIS REPORT?
Joann Bangs:
We publish the Census to encourage people to examine the make-up of boards and senior executive teams — and to understand the benefits that accrue as a result. The composition of boards and senior executive teams signals companies’ commitments to inclusive leadership. Millennial workers are checking out company websites and asking themselves, “Do I see anyone like me?” That’s become an important piece of data-gathering for job seekers.

HOW CAN COMPANIES CREATE A STRONG ENVIRONMENT FOR WOMEN?
Bangs: Companies need to build in flexibility for both men and women. Women are more likely than men to have stopped out to raise children, and in the workforce you’re penalized for stopping out. We are calling for structural changes and organizational commitment to support women and men to have a healthy work-life balance.

Hawthorne: Companies need to build a balanced pipeline of executives. They need a process to examine leaders, from the top of the ladder on down, to see what leadership development opportunities will benefit them. Creating metrics and pushing accountability is critical if highly qualified women and men are going to be developed.

HOW CAN EXECUTIVES HELP WOMEN ADVANCE?
Hawthorne: Mentor and sponsor women — which means going to bat for your mentees with upper management. Work with women to identify desirable career paths within the company. Flag experiences that may help women make progress, be it in profit-and-loss roles or international experiences that will prepare them for senior leadership.

DO WOMEN CEOS MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Hawthorne: It’s no coincidence that four of the seven companies with female CEOs this year are on our Honor Roll. Women at the top tend to create more leadership opportunities for women. Their influence can include reaching out to offer feedback and providing support for women’s careers.

WHAT ARE THE BIG SURPRISES THIS YEAR?
Hawthorne: This is the first year we’ve had a company — C.H. Robinson — increase both its number of executive women officers and women board members. And we’re finally seeing more companies move to two, three or even four women on the board. That makes a difference in decision-making processes and on the company bottom line.