01 January 2014

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Any guess as to the more popular articles on Fortune.com in 2013?   Was it investment advice?  CEO changes?  Health care implementation?  The roaring stock market?   

The top three was a piece entitled, "Warren Buffett is bullish on ... women." 

In an exclusive essay, the Berkshire Hathaway chairman and CEO attempted to make a case for why women are the key to America's (perhaps the world's) prosperity.  In speaking of the future, Buffett calls himself an "unqualified optimist" and notes that "women are the reason we will do so well."

The 83-year-old "Oracle of Omaha" offered the following ideas:
  1. Americans today enjoy an abundance of goods and services that no one could have dreamed of just a few centuries ago.
  2. That America has forged this success while utilizing in large part, only half of the country's talent.  For most of our history, women--whatever their abilities--have been relegated to the sidelines.
  3. Resistance among the powerful is natural when changing clashes with their self-interest.  Business, politics, and religions provide examples of this behavior.
  4. An even greater enemy of change may well be the ingrained attitudes of those who simply can't imagine a world different from the one they've lived in.
  5. An obstacle remains--too many women continue to impose limitations on themselves, talking themselves out of achieving their potential. 
Buffett's concluding thought may be one of economic self-interest:  "The closer that America comes to fully employ the talents of all its citizens, the greater the output of goods and services will be."

In other words, 100% instead of 50% human capacity is the better proposition.

Progress is slow--but in motion

Is the president of the United States the most powerful position in the world?  It's powerful in many ways but there are political and legislative limitations to that job.

The position with nearly unlimited power and influence is chairing of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board of Governors.   The current chair, Ben Bernanke, will be retiring in 2014 and his position will be filled by Janet Yellen, the first woman to head the Federal Reserve.  Dr. Yellen, not President Barack Obama, will be in the seat of power. 

Angela Merkel won another term as chancellor of Germany, and Park Geun Hye took office as South Korea's president.  Kathleen Taylor was named the next chair of the Royal Bank of Canada, the nation's most profitable company. 

While women did not get more seats in the boardrooms and C-suites according to Catalyst.org, there were some impressive gains in other areas in the past year.

Broken glass at General Motors

On 10 December 2013 General Motors' Board of Directors voted unanimously to have Mary Barra serve as its next Chief Executive Officer.  The appointment is effective on 15 January 2014. 

A female CEO is not only a first for GM but for the U. S. auto industry as well.  

Ms. Barra, 51, now head of worldwide product development, is taking over a revitalized GM from the current chair and CEO, Dan Akerson, who is leaving the global automaker to care for his wife, Karin, seriously ill with cancer.

Incoming CEO Barra is a graduate of General Motors Institute (GMI), now Kettering University, Flint, Michigan, and holds an MBA from Stanford University.  

While working at GM in the late 1960s I served as a clerk alongside GMI co-op students who were preparing for careers at the auto giant.  It's worth noting that 45 years ago Mary Barra could not have clerked for superintendents in GM's plant offices because of her gender.

In 33 years at GM, Ms. Barra, who is reported to possess strong people skills, has worked in engineering, communications, and human resources.  Holes in sales and marketing experience will be filled quickly by other members of her team, according to insiders.

“When you put her in a position that’s completely new to her, she does an amazing job of getting grounded, understanding what’s important and what’s not, and executing very well,” said Gary Cowger, a former GM executive who mentored Barra.

With taxpayer help, she will be taking over a going concern.  GM has racked up almost $20 billion in profit since leaving bankruptcy in 2009.  Barra will have overall responsibility for 212,000 employees scattered across 23 time zones.    

Timely interventions

There are other Mary Barras in the workforce.  What keeps them from breaking "the glass ceiling," a term first used by Gay Bryant, editor of Family Circle Magazine?

Women’s career development is slowed by companies’ underestimation of their readiness to assume leadership roles, a Conference Board of Canada (CBC) study concludes. As a result, women lower their career expectations, harming both their own advancement and the companies where they work.

“This ‘unconscious bias’ means young women are consistently underestimated and overlooked, right from the outset of their careers,” said Ruth Wright, CBC director of Human Resource Management Research.

“Organizations need to implement objective and transparent talent management practices that guard against unconscious bias. Otherwise, the effects are both cumulative and costly—for young women who are denied access to critical developmental opportunities, and for organizations that fail to recognize and develop top talent,” Wright added.

A changing workforce

Two important values of society, education and work itself are in the process of being altered in significant ways.  First, the estimated percentage of all bachelor's degrees earned by women in 2013 is 57%.  Women are also expected to have received 60% of all master's degrees and 52% of all doctorate degrees. (TIME Magazine)

Additionally, there was a 6.2% increase in the labor-force participation rate for women from 1980 to 2012 with 67.5 million now in the workplace, a record number.  (U. S. Labor Department)  The labor-force participation rate for men declined by 7.2% over the same period. (U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) 

What could these statistical shifts mean for institutions of higher learning, household formation, and the economy in general?

It takes courage

What's the answer to more significant progress?

Entrepreneurship is a route some females are taking.  It's not an easy one but there can be big payoffs.  Examples include Cher Wang, founder of HTC; Clara Shih, Faceconnector; and the late Anita Roddick, who started The Body Shop.  Each was successful in growing and sustaining their companies. 

The vast majority of women, however, will find themselves working in existing businesses or nonprofits.  That necessitates a combination of encouragement, mentoring, sponsorship, and learning to make their own breaks along the way--just like everyone else.

An article published in Psychology Today on women in the workforce concluded that changing behavior begins with having the courage to do so:

"Leaders must see diversity as a business imperative, not just a matter of compliance or an add-on program, and be willing to take a bold approach. 

"It takes courage on the part of the CEO, senior people, and board members to create an inclusive culture of different leadership styles, different ways of communicating and different ways of interacting, that will empower the whole talent pool."

Perhaps Warren Buffett has it right.  Leaders need to visualize the benefits of having "100%" human capacity.  If they act on that vision, it might increase everyone's optimism about the future.         


(C) Bredholt & Co.