Since women comprise nearly half the U.S. workforce, it is startling to see how few have attained CEO status or serve in board positions for major companies. The numbers are improving, but many say not fast enough.
Just more than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs, according to 2017 numbers from the Pew Research Center.
There were none in 1995.
As for Fortune 500 board members, women claimed 9.6 percent of those seats in 1995 and 20.2 percent last year, according to the most recent numbers provided by the Pew center.
Nechie Hall is surprised those numbers haven’t climbed higher. Hall is the former CEO of Vladimir Jones, an advertising and public relations business she founded (as PRACO) with her husband, James, in 1970. She was also interim CEO of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in 2014.
“I’m encouraged by what I see locally, and by the number of dynamic women in leadership positions,” she said. “Last year, women were the leaders at the Air Force Academy, UCCS and Colorado College.”
Still, according to the Women’s Leadership Foundation’s flagship program, Board Bound, 11 percent of board seats within publicly traded companies in Colorado are occupied by women, compared to 19 percent nationally.
“Those numbers are alarming, even to some male counterparts,” said Lola Woloch, president and CEO of the Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce. “Other countries are more advanced; the United States should be leading the charge. I definitely think it should be improving faster.”
While a third of women were in the workforce in the 1950s, that number reached 60 percent in 1999, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That has helped numbers rise, but the system hasn’t changed, according to UCCS professor Andrea Herrera.
“The tendency is to have implicit bias,” Herrera said. “People want to hire people who look like them, and promote those people, especially in the corporate world.”
Hall’s daughter, Meredith Vaughan, is the CEO of Vladimir Jones, which has grown to be Colorado’s third-largest woman-owned business. Vaughan became the company president in 2008 and CEO in 2014.
She knows progress has been made by women in the workplace, but is exasperated by the fact that they’re still not on equal footing.
“Every generation has a greater impact,” Vaughan said. “My daughter, who is 14, is part of a generation that is blind to these [gender] issues. As they get older, it will continue to be less of an issue, less of a qualifier for any position. The younger generation is changing the dynamic — not just the women, but also the men.
“The problem is that we still have to talk about this. I hope by the time my daughter runs a business or whatever she chooses to do, there is no longer a ‘most powerful women in business’ list. Everyone should be on the same list.”
Hall knows the challenges women have faced through the years.
“I was at meetings for years when I was the only woman in the room,” she said. “Early on, that presented some challenges.”
But she was prepared, stayed focused on the task and her clients, and didn’t blink.
“I never paid attention to being the only woman in the room,” Hall said. “Very quickly, those challenges went away. Gender disappears when you’re working on a team. I’ve seen that in our company.”
She said every CEO, regardless of gender, must be open to having balance, both in the workplace and on boards.
“They all need to do some soul-searching,” Hall said. “It makes for a better company and more growth when you have better balance.”
Woloch, who described herself as a “driven entrepreneur,” recalled when she worked in a corporate setting 15 years ago and was greatly outnumbered by male peers.
“I was one of the few female directors in our company and a [human resources] person told me that the guys were taking bets if I would last in this fast-paced, pressure-packed environment,” she said. “I started producing incredible results and was promoted a short time afterward.”
She had a colleague who faced a different challenge about 20 years ago, as an executive in a technology company. Bonuses were being given and it was suggested that she would get less than her male associates. She consulted an employment attorney and the company corrected the situation, giving her the same bonus, Woloch said.
That type of pay discrimination still exists, said Lisa Christie, director of communications for The Women’s Foundation of Colorado.
“While the gender pay gap is getting smaller, it’s not closing fast enough,” she said in an email. “In the U.S. overall, the wage gap narrowed considerably in the 1970s and 1980s, but has remained fairly stagnant over the past decade. If progress continues at the current rate since 1960, the state’s gender wage gap will not close until 2057. That’s a missed opportunity — for women, for families and for our economy. If Colorado women earned the same as comparable men, the state’s economy would grow by an additional $9.2 billion or 3 percent of the state’s GDP in 2014.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women earned 62 percent of what their male counterparts did in 1979 and had narrowed the gap to 83 percent by 2014.
Change the system
Herrera, the professor who helped start the Women’s and Ethnic Studies program at UCCS, said the corporate structure must change for women to see significant results and reach more high-level positions.
“A lot of challenges keep women from succeeding,” she said. “If you want to succeed in business or as a CEO, you may have to sacrifice family time or having children. Most companies don’t provide day care or flex hours, and if your husband also works, someone has to sacrifice for the kids.”
She’s also not encouraged by increasing numbers of women in CEO positions.
“Many of those women are caretakers of the same system that’s kept women out,” she said. “When they get to that position, they often won’t effect change in the system they’re overseeing.”
Woloch said that companies must rethink the way they promote employees.
“Women have to show results to be promoted,” she said. “Men are often promoted on potential.”
Woloch said tools are offered to help women advance.
“At the Women’s Chamber, we offer education and advocacy to help,” Woloch said. “We host workshops to provide information to women to know what board service is about and to encourage women to get involved on boards and committees.”
Board Bound works to increase the number of women on boards, in part by matching c-level women with mentors in a one-year program with workshops and training to prepare them to serve.
“It’s really important that companies look at succession planning and, as leaders, they sponsor women with high-level talent,” Woloch said.
Sponsoring, she noted, is different from mentoring.
“Sponsoring is playing a deliberate role in advancing someone in a company,” Woloch said. “I don’t think it goes on very often but it’s a way to help more women get in these positions. We need to push that needle.”
Vaughan said she learned a lot from her mother.
“Mom worked and was a strong leader and my father was open to that,” Vaughan said. “That was a good lesson for me. I learned from her that no challenge is insurmountable.”