If anyone still believed that the shortage of women on corporate boards was due to a “lack of qualified female candidates,” this year’s Network of Executive Women (NEW) Executive Forum put that myth to rest. Women currently occupy only 27% of corporate board seats in the S&P 500, with tangible consequences for women at every level of business. Firms with no women on their boards have half as many women in their leadership as those with 3 or more, according to MSCI.
The keynote speakers (including Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, and Suzy Whaley, President at PGA of America) may have been impressive, but critical to the event’s success were the nearly three hundred and fifty talented and experienced corporate (mainly female) leaders turned up to network, learn, and “consider how reframing their lives, careers, and their business leadership values can make an impact on gender equality, diversity, and inclusion.”
The theme of the event—Reframe: Our Power. On Purpose. For Progress—was indicative of the growing awareness that professional women have of their roles as decision-makers in business. And women’s contributions to business are worth acknowledging. In one study, companies with strong female leadership saw a 37% higher same-year Return on Equity than firms without. Speakers highlighted several themes, including the need to be brave rather than perfect, to put one’s self forward for opportunity, and to look for innovation in the power of diversity.
The message was clear. Each of us plays a role in the advancement of women in the workplace; from women in leadership positions, to those just starting out. Reshma Saujani, for instance, was inspired to start Girls who Code because “you cannot be what you cannot see.” With women only occupying 27% of senior management positions in the S&P 500, many young women rarely or never interact with senior women at work. To empower the next generation of women, those who have gone before need to identify themselves to help show the way. Their visibility can inspire a young woman who might not otherwise see herself as a board director, a CEO, or an entrepreneur.
Deanna Oppenheimer touched on this theme too, in a panel discussion with Kim Villeneuve, Jeni Elam, and Kim Feil. Data from McKinsey suggest that men are far more likely to be promoted than women are. Though they enter the workforce at similar rates, women wind up holding only 38% of manager positions, 30% of VP positions, and 23% of C-suite positions. Deanna’s instruction to “Give a chance, take a chance” encouraged women (and men) in leadership positions to offer opportunities to women to shoulder more responsibility and advance their careers. Simultaneously, Deanna encouraged younger women to take the chances they were given: to overcome their fear and step up to the plate.
NEW’s executive forum was a celebration of the transformative power of female leadership. It was an acknowledgement of the progress that’s been made by women, despite innumerable obstacles and difficulties, while recognizing how far we still have to go. Women may occupy only 27% of S&P 500 board seats, but they filled 40% of open seats in 2018 and 87% of S&P 500 boards now have 2 or more female directors.
If you watched the attendees as they filed out of each speech, you couldn’t help but notice the excitement, the palpable sense of enthusiasm that they radiated. You got the impression that these women were not only brilliant and experienced. Now they were motivated too.