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Women: The Last Frontier?

By Pepper de Callier

The subject of women in roles of power has been discussed, debated and written about for at least 2,400 years, dating back to Ancient Greece and Aristophanes.  It’s one of those topics that has a unique ability to lower the level of objective discourse and raise the level of blood pressure for many of those involved in the discussion.

Full disclosure: My mother was an executive, who received national recognition for her accomplishments, in a large corporate environment in the 1950’s in America—a time that was not only less than accepting of women in leadership roles—it was a time when that kind of woman—ambitious—was openly derided and joked about.  My wife is a former senior executive in what was the largest independent film studio in Hollywood and one of the youngest non-actors ever voted into the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.  I am very proud of my mother’s and my wife’s accomplishments in the world of business—not because of their gender, but because of what they accomplished, their character and their values.  

I have written a number of articles on this topic, including a four part series for Hospodarske Noviny last year.  However, I have never expressed an opinion on the specific facet of women in positions of power, or leadership, that I encountered recently.

On the 15th of September, I attended a panel presentation sponsored by HN that discussed the provocative topic of whether or not there should be a legislated mandate requiring businesses in the Czech Republic to have a certain quota, or percentage, of women on their Boards of Directors. The presentation was moderated by HN Editor-in-Chief, Petr Simunek, and panel members included  Muriel Anton, CEO of Vodafone Czech Republic, Senta Cermakova, of Hewlett-Packard, and Elin Hurvenes of the Norwegian-based Professional Boards Forum organization.

While I realize that there are convincing arguments on both sides of the quota debate—amongst women as well as men—I personally find the concept of quotas, as it relates to this topic, demeaning and divisive at best, and I think it is the wrong approach on this issue.  This, perhaps more than any other issue in which the discussion of quotas arises, is a matter of education, not legislation.  

Thanks to a growing number of detailed studies that have been done over the past twenty years, a body of objective data has been created about the impact of women on the performance of a business enterprise.  Today, in the 21st century, the discussion of whether or not to choose a qualified woman for a position of authority is more about deciding whether you will make that decision based on facts or on prejudice.  Let me ask you a question.  Assuming it was legal and ethical, wouldn’t you, as a business leader, feel obligated, or feel a sense of responsibility, to do something that you knew would enhance the financial performance and shareholder value of your company? Well, your wait is over.  McKinsey & Company, arguably the world’s most respected consulting company, completed an exhaustive study about this very topic.  It’s titled Women Matter and I think exhibit 9 on page 14 of the study sums it up quite nicely: “Companies with a higher proportion of women in their top management have better financial performance.”  On ROE, they were10% higher than the industry average.  If you want to use EBIT as your metric of choice—48% above the industry average. And, if it’s stock price that gets your attention, using the appropriate Eurostoxx 600 sectorial indices, stock price growth for the period of 2005 to 2007 showed a 17 point differential in favor of the companies with higher percentages of women.

Here’s another interesting point: Companies with gender-balanced (I hope someone comes up with a better term) Boards of Directors out-perform—pick a metric—companies with all male or all female boards.

What you’ve just read is fact, not opinion.  Now, here’s the odd part.  A recent study showed that in the 50 largest publicly-traded companies in each country of the European Union, women, on average, account for 11% of the top executives and only 4% of those companies had women CEO’s.  Taking the point further, just 1% of Fortune Magazine’s Global 500 have women CEO’s.

As a CEO, what would you do with a subordinate who didn’t act on such compelling data if it involved, say, increasing the sales of a product or service that they had responsibility for?  Well, that’s probably what your shareholders are thinking, too.

This is not about favoring a qualified woman over a qualified man, or firing a man to hire a woman.  It’s about openly and honestly considering women as equal competitors for every position on the organizational chart.  Some enlightened Boards of Directors and CEOs are even telling executive search professionals that they don’t want to see a list of candidates that does not have female representation on it.

So, is it women who should be considered a last frontier in the evolution of senior executive and Board member selection or is common sense? 

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at

Are you interested in Business Networking at the highest level? Do you enjoy top locations combined with expertly selected wines? Then you will not want to miss this series of events. Prague Leadership Institute (By Pepper de Callier) and are happy to invite you to our event on the 25th of November 2013, at Le Palais Hotel Prague. Ethics, Economics, and Trust: Government, Business, and Civil Society in the 21st Century

*These are reprints from Pepper de Callier‘s newspaper column in 2010.

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