There’s one career strategy that is rarely considered but could prove useful, even pivotal, in the advancement of young women in the workplace.
It is simply this: Stop and find out if women exist in the upper echelons at a given company. Are there any women in the executive suites or on the board of directors? If you can’t find any, watch out.
“That is a statement in and of itself. If there are only men at the top it usually permeates down to other levels,” says Patricia Flynn, trustee professor of Economics and Management at Bentley University.
“We aim to teach young women to think in terms of cultures that will really support their career efforts,” says Flynn. “If they find their company has a negative attitude and track record toward women, they should leave. Better yet, don’t accept a job there in the first place, if there are no women in the boardroom or the executive suite.”
Raising awareness about gender inequity at the highest levels of the business world is one of the key aims of the Boston Club, an organization of women executives in the Bay State. Flynn and Bentley’s Center for Women and Business work closely with this and other organizations of professional women, contributing powerful in-depth research and an essential link to the next generation.
“We want young women to be thinking long-term,” says Flynn, who currently serves on the board of Columbia Funds, and teaches corporate governance at Bentley’s Graduate School of Business. “They may not be board-ready but we want them to start considering different opportunities and the culture of the organization that will affect their career paths.”
Another initiative to encourage high-level female advancement is 20/20 Women on Boards, a national campaign — started in Boston — to increase the percentage of women on U.S. corporate boards to 20 percent by the year 2020, a mission endorsed by Bentley President Gloria Larson and others prominent in their fields.
Setting a different but equally ambitious goal is the Thirty Percent Coalition, a new nonprofit whose members include a wide range of organizations and individuals. The coalition’s goal is 30 percent women directors on the boards of U.S. public companies by the end of 2015.
Why such concentrated focus on helping women climb the corporate ladder? Take a look at the national numbers and you’ll get it. In 2013, women accounted for just 11.7 percent of corporate board members in the largest 3,000 U.S. companies. Only 14 percent of board members in the S&P 1500 were female. And among Fortune 500 companies, the number was 16.6 percent.
Set within a worldwide context, the relative status of women corporate directors in the U.S. is getting worse. This is due, in large part, to mandated quotas in several countries, including, for example, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
In 2012, in Norway, women represented 36.3 percent of corporate directors; Finland 26.4 percent; Sweden 26.4 percent; France 16.6 percent; Denmark 15.6 percent; Australia 13.8 percent; Canada 13.1 percent; Germany 12.9 percent. In contrast, the U.S. was at 12.6 percent.
“The gap between the U.S. and many of these countries will grow, as the U.S. will not legislate quotas,” says Flynn. “In some sense this will help call attention to the relative lack of women in U.S. boardrooms. The bottom line is, however, that we must continue to actively work to get more women corporate directors and executive officers in the U.S.”
Getting women at early and mid-career stages to recognize this problem would be a real victory in the quest for change. “It goes beyond awareness of potential negative impacts the corporate climate can have on their individual careers, to helping the larger cause,” says Flynn. “And,” as she’s noted in the past, “we need the men, too, in bringing about change. They can help open doors and raise key questions about the dearth of female leaders and role models — especially in the boardrooms and executive suites where women aren’t there to speak for themselves.”
Asked if she feels the long struggle toward equality at the top is ever going to create true parity, Flynn shrugs.
“There is always hope,” she says with a mix of humor and determination. “And, we are not going away. We are not giving up!”
Meg Murphy is a freelance writer.