Mary Barra, the highly regarded CEO of General Motors pictured above, is part of a very, very small group of women CEOs. Mary is a GM lifer who rose through the manufacturing ranks to earn the job five years ago. Despite decades of focus, effort, progress and learning women like Mary are vastly underrepresented in the rooms where the big decisions are made and real power resides. Conditions are likely even worse than the women CEO numbers so often quoted in lamenting the current state. The profound dearth of women CEOs is concern enough, but upon closer examination the majority of C suite women executives occupy support roles rather than the seats of real power. These important though supportive roles include CFO, HR, GC, compliance, communications, IT, and government affairs. These are complex and important roles and come with a seat at the big table and handsome compensation. But real power resides in the positions that control the dollars, people, and assets that are the motive force behind conceiving, designing, making, marketing, selling and servicing the firm’s products and services. These line jobs have measurable results and directly connect to the financial outcomes. Women certainly are represented in every one of these areas and sometimes have C suite responsibility for them, but far less often than men. These C suite general manager jobs are the training ground and overwhelming source of future CEOs. My thesis is that women CEOs are few largely because the pipeline to the job is even thinner at the top than generally believed. Moreover, simply decreeing that women must occupy two board seats as some jurisdictions have done will do little to change this power influence imbalance. When the doors are closed and the big calls are made, the CEOs past and present in the boardroom have the most influence by far. Of course there are extraordinary non-CEO women who by force of personality, courage, brains, experience, and skill can have real influence and power around the big calls, but that is not the norm. This is not to denigrate in any way or discourage the efforts to find and place women on boards. The point is that non-CEO women on boards while positive does not address the core issue of lack of women CEOs.
There is no simple answer to fixing the few women CEO situation. Resolving most complex problems involves a multitude of parallel and reinforcing initiatives over time. The lack of women general managers in the C suite has many roots. First men must acknowledge the problem and their vital role in making progress. There are also choices and behaviors women need to change, but men doing their part is an absolutely necessary condition. Men must care. Really care. They have to believe to their very core that women are fully capable and deserving of every opportunity to grow. Women lead complex companies and societies. We see them as role model leaders everywhere. Behold the magnificent human beings you daily sit in class with. This is no small change for society, but men must do their part and lead. Men, when you are leaders demand women be considered, encourage and develop women leaders and take risks on them as you would a man of similar ability and promise. This does not happen enough in the real world today. Many will protest otherwise, but it is true. Encourage women to take the jobs that are line jobs and not staff. Be sure you lead environments where women are fully respected and feel they have equal opportunity to grow. Look at the data and measure progress. Do not fall prey to comforting anecdotes or excuses. You get what you inspect not what you expect is an old adage that applies here too. Men, some questions to ask yourself. Do you have and understand the data about opportunities for and the pipeline for women leaders where you work? Many studies show men have bias against considering women as leaders and are likely to undervalue women’s accomplishment and potential. Do you own, understand and work against your own bias? Do you mentor and coach promising women leaders as you would men or do you hide behind excuses about why this is not possible? Do you assure good daycare programs exist for employee’s children and invest in them? Do you make sure that non-workplace recreational activities are just as welcoming to women as men which might include less golf and more hiking? Do you have success stories? So changing attitudes, real leadership and willingness to risk by men on a much, much bigger scale than currently exist are necessary.
The decisions women make and actions they take comprise the balance of what is needed. Before discussing the role women must play in their own development, we should acknowledge some important realities. Society still largely expects women to raise the children and make the family a unit. This is changing and undoubtedly many HBS men expect to be full co-parents and domestic partners. But this is not the norm. This societal expectation puts extra pressure on women in the critical first ten or fifteen career years. Ways to address this challenge are many, but the central need is for women to choose a full partner who will really share family duties. Many families with high professional aspiration at some point have full time help as soon as they can afford the cost. My belief is that the best thing women can do to be considered and competitive for the CEO and other big C suite jobs is to point to a line rather than staff track. They also must become as skilled as they can in a work world whose unwritten rules of behavior are most comfortable for men in their resemblance to how men learned to interact on the playgrounds of their youth. Volumes have been written about this, and I have no particular revelations to offer other than to acknowledge the reality. Be your authentic self, but work on being a bit more direct, assertive, and confident than might come naturally in a group setting is a good place to begin. These behaviors do not require bombast or volume but are most effective when they come from your core. The next choice is to avoid industries known for being anti women unless you are ready to take on the extra challenge. Young, cocky, engineer men dominated environments come to mind. There are others and hopefully they are all changing for the better, but understanding context is important. The necessary and sufficient condition given all that has been mentioned so far is for women to take line jobs as early as possible. Yes there are examples of women who rose to the top via staff routes, but you limit your chances severely by taking a staff path. The line jobs are in marketing, sales, service, manufacturing, product design, engineering, and quality assurance to list the big areas. An ideal line job involves being close to the product or customer, has measurable results that can be affected in a reasonable way by leadership choices and team behaviors, is visible to more senior leaders, and often provide lessons that are valuable as your career progresses. All the normal career progression rules of doing a good job; making your boss happy and supportive, treating your subordinates and peers well, being honest and dependable, developing allies and seeking self-knowledge and committing to personal growth all apply. Do all this and mentors will find you. You do not pick them. They pick you. Let your boss and HR know you want to grow as a line leader with the target a P+L job with multifunctional responsibility as soon as you can get it. Take professional risks in going to the place or job that is unfamiliar. This might mean changing companies. Make your opinion known thoughtfully when it might not be the received wisdom of the day. Take a chance in betting on someone you think has promise. Line jobs are riskier than staff jobs, because they are measurable in results rather than paper, presentation and process. But they are the path to the top. They are also the most fun and satisfying. HBS’s mission is to prepare leaders who can make a difference in the world. Go into the world convinced and determined to lead on the biggest and most impactful scale you can. Men, do your part. The world has always been and will always be short of good leaders. We need our sisters.
Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.