As discussed in a recent post, it’s time for women’s voices to be heard—loudly—in business.
In the world of rock & roll it took years for women to get out of the kitchen (where songs like "Shake Rattle and Roll" had long confined them) and enter the public arena. But by the mid-70s they had stormed the concert stage and would never look back. Today they’ve achieved near gender parity as demonstrated by Hayley Williams of Paramore, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift (who IS the music industry today, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek).
In the world of mainstream business women have made notable progress in the last decade, owning more businesses than ever before and filling more executive positions and board seats at major firms. An impressive array of chief executives like Marilyn Hewson at Lockheed Martin, Virginia Rometty at IBM, and Ursula Burns at Xerox has forever altered the chemistry of The Club.
Yet that’s still only 5.2% of Fortune 500 companies with a woman CEO. Only 17% of total executives in these companies are women. And only 20% of board members. (The problem is worse in hi-tech where women comprise only 9% of boards in the top 150 Silicon Valley companies.)
So what makes me optimistic that women will ever achieve the kind of success in business management that they have in rock performance?
The forces at play are similar in this sense: women who started out in either field had few role models—which set up a negative spiral in which those early brave souls, having no women to mentor and support them, got discouraged and gave up the quest.
In the case of rock, eventually there were just enough "weak signals" that something was changing—thanks to pioneers like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick (and a soul pioneer like Aretha Franklin)—to attract the attention of other women. By the early 70s the surprising and synchronistic success of women in different musical veins—like hit songwriter Carole King, folk/jazz balladeer Joni Mitchell, and woman-activist pop songstress Helen Reddy (as reported here)—had put some cracks in the ceiling. By the mid-70s the airwaves were opened up to pop rockers like Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie and to punk revolutionaries like Patti Smith and Deborah Harry. Later pop idols could stand on their shoulders. Stevie Nicks, for example, inspired Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks to reach for the stars. The Dixie Chicks—and Joni Mitchell—inspired Katy Perry. The negative spiral was thereby transformed into a virtuous cycle. Success, after all, begets success.
In business, the weak signal phase is past. There is finally a serious push for women in senior management thanks to the public shaming that many big firms have endured (in recent months) for the lack of female faces in high places. For instance, in hi-tech land—a bastion of “bro” dominance—there has been a firestorm of protests against Apple and other companies for the absence of women leaders there.
Case in point: Microsoft CEO Satya Nardella was humiliated by the fallout from his comments in October that women should not ask for raises but rely on "good karma" for promotions! Karma-gate quickly forced him and his company to confront the problem (and the numbers) in a way they had never been forced to previously. And the problem, as I’ve stated before, isn’t that women aren’t filling some “quota” of management positions. The problem is that it’s profoundly dumb for a business to not have the diversity in senior leadership to reflect (and understand) the diversity of its customer base!
But Nardella seems to have had a born-again experience, as reflected in his recent comments:
In the case of women we have 29%, but it drops to 17% when it comes to engineering. Obviously, that's not the case in the real world of the customers that we are trying to serve. It's not even like, oh, let's do this because this is something that we want to do in addition to our innovation. No, this is necessary if you want to build successful products, especially in our case where we're very global, we sell across all economic strata, we sell obviously to all genders, all ethnic groups.
There are similar epiphanies that other corporate leaders are having—including Apple CEO Tim Cook who recently stated his dissatisfaction with his company's abysmal diversity record—which gives me hope for the future. Call me naïve, but I think this kind of public humiliation of business executives who until recently didn't “get it” IS making a difference. (The issue has finally gotten personal.)
A few more powerful women in high places could turn the tide, giving women in management the role models they need to keep going—which would begin to create the self-reinforcing cycle that's needed for long-term gender diversity.