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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Despite the rhetoric, female CEOs still a rarity in US

Although this year was touted as the year of women in politics, in the business world, female bosses are underrepresented

Indra Nooyi, chairman & chief executive officer, PepsiCo and Priyanka Chopra, actress, producer & activist speak onstage at the 2018 Forbes Women's Summit at Chelsea Pier on June 19, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP)
Indra Nooyi, chairman & chief executive officer, PepsiCo and Priyanka Chopra, actress, producer & activist speak onstage at the 2018 Forbes Women's Summit at Chelsea Pier on June 19, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP)

For the past decade, Bank of America chief executive Brian Moynihan has displayed commitment to improving his bank’s diversity by showing up.

“It’s a huge priority,” says Sheri Bronstein, the bank’s global human resources executive. “He hasn’t missed any of our diversity and inclusion councils in 10 years. It starts with him and trickles down.’’

Mr Moynihan chairs the global council, which aims to develop strategies around workplace diversity and inclusion in the Charlotte-based firm, according to Bloomberg. Ms Bronstein is also a leader on the the council and helps keep management up to date about the council’s goals and progress.

Wall Street firm leaders have said they want to boost the percentage of women and non-white workers in their companies. They have signed pledges, analysed data on their workforce and some have publicly shared targets for hiring and promoting employees from underrepresented groups.

At Bank of America, 54 per cent of its US workforce was female in 2017, according to company filings. Women make up a third of the bank’s executive and senior level officials and managers. Of those women, 82 per cent are white.

Still, the bank’s revenue-producing operations are split into four divisions, which are all run by men.

Ms Bronstein says that in recent years, her human resources department went from looking at high-level statistics to starting to produce the data by “every level of the organisation, by every metric”.

“Being in a bank people are used to looking at lots of numbers and I think they’ve gotten used to that we’re going to have that same focus on HR data,” she says. “We’ve had great buy-in.”

However, although this year was touted as the year of women in politics in the United States, in the business world, female bosses remain few and far between.

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Declining

The departure in September of India's Indra Nooyi as head of PepsiCo after more than a decade in the job has only reinforced a trend that has been growing for the past two years: the decline in the number of women CEOs even as debate about the need for equality in the workplace rages, and amid increasing calls for women to break through the "glass ceiling".

FILE- In this Jan. 27, 2008, file photo, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, USA, Indra Nooyi smiles during the closing session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. With Nooyi exiting PepsiCo as its longtime chief executive, the circle of CEOs in the S&P 500 is losing one of its highest profile women. Nooyi has been with PepsiCo Inc. for 24 years and held the top job for 12. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
The CEO of PepsiCo, USA, Indra Nooyi recently resigned. AFP

Recently, a number of prominent women have left their posts as company heads, including Denise Morrison of Campbell Soup, Margo Georgiadis of Mattel, Sherilyn McCoy of Avon, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard, Ursula Burns of Xerox, and Ellen Kullman of Dupont.

All of them have been replaced by men, a blow for diversity since fewer than 5 per cent of leaders of the S&P 500 largest enterprises are now women, according to AFP, down from 5.4 per cent in 2017.

"We are going in the wrong direction," says Lorraine Hariton, whose NGO Catalysts advocates for women in senior positions.

"Women have gotten into entry-level positions very successfully, and then they get to middle management, and things stall out," she says. "Women still today are not reaching the top, particularly women of colour."

Dismissing the idea that the glass ceiling is down to women's decision to focus on family rather than career, experts lay the blame more on deep-rooted cliches.

Ms Hariton says her group's research "shows that the stereotype that men 'take charge' and women 'take care' puts women leaders in a double bind and can potentially undermine their leadership and career and advancement options".

"Women suffer 'Goldilocks' syndrome: they are judged as being too hard, too soft, and never just right for the job," she says.

"Women are held to higher ethical standards and punished more harshly after ethical violations than are men," adds Vanderbilt University professor Jessica Kennedy.

"In short, women face higher standards and have more to prove than men do," she said.

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Women who aim high in business often find they are not invited to important meetings or to after-work gatherings, both places where important connections are made, experts say.

Even though the number of women in managerial positions has risen in the past decade, many are stuck in mid-level positions like head of human resources, or the legal or financial director of their company, according to Pew Research. Very few rise as high as chief operating officer, the launchpad to the CEO post.

On the other hand, researchers have found that it is not uncommon for a woman to be offered the helm of a company that is already in trouble, a "glass cliff" post she is more likely to accept in a bid to prove herself even if the chances of success are low.

Christy Glass, a professor at the University of Utah, says women are also seen as being better at breaking bad news than men.

She cites the case of Mary Barra, who was named head of General Motors in February 2014, several days before the car maker revealed that its faulty ignition switch was linked to 124 deaths.

Ms Hariton says that to change the dynamic, more women are needed on companies' boards of directors, which are responsible for appointing the head of a firm.

"Eighty per cent of board seats at S&P 500 companies are primarily men," says Ms Hariton. "So the lens by which women are being evaluated is a white, male lens."