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Virginia Rometty, President and CEO of IBM, is interviewed by Rebecca Blumenstein, Deputy Editor in Chief of The Wall Street Journal,  during the Wall Street Journal Digital Live (WSJDLive) conference at the Montage Laguna Beach, California October 20, 2015.      REUTERS/Mike Blake - RTS5AQZ
TechTank

Woman technology CEOs make progress on C-suite gender diversity

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The 2016 Bloomberg Pay Index has good news for women in business. Women are more prevalent than ever before in C-level positions, and it seems likely that this trend is set to continue. The technology boom is the biggest contributor to this, with companies like IBM, Xerox, and Yahoo all recently being headed by ambitious and outspoken female executives. These women employed a mix of shrewd business skills and foresight to fight their way to the tops of firms in an otherwise male-dominated industry.

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Take CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometti. Not only is she the highest paid woman on the Bloomberg Pay Index with a benefits package of $98.6 million but she is also the first woman to make it to the top 10 since the index was created. Situated at number six overall, she shares her spot on the list with thirteen other women, many of whom benefited from the high performance of tech stocks last year.

This is a small part of current statistical trend toward higher numbers of female executives. There were 27 female CEOs at the helm of S&P 500 companies: a record number for 2016. Pew polling reinforces this trend and indicates that a majority of Americans view women as equally capable as men in business matters. It seems like stigma against female CEOs is on the decline and the increasing visibility of women like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer or Xerox’s Ursula Burns may be contributing toward a growing social acceptance of women in leadership positions.

However, there is still a long way to go. According to a 2014 report, only nine percent of Silicon Valley executives are women. When looking beyond the technology industry, most boardrooms are still overwhelmingly occupied by men (a pattern unfortunately repeated throughout high-power roles in law and politics).

One analysis by CNNMoney indicates that inadequate training and a lack of support prevents women from entering top-level positions. Because there is simply not enough qualified women to draw from, the high-powered positions are filled by men. Many women have voiced concerns that they are not receiving the support they need to be successful. Although some ambitious women continue to rise to the top, most will likely move at a snail’s pace due to current institutional weaknesses and problems within the private sector.

Is there a place for policy to step in? The consensus seems mixed, especially in the business world. While some European countries like Germany have implemented quotas for women in supervisory boards, it seems highly unlikely that this measure would be implemented in the United States. American businesswomen might recoil at the thought of “tokenism” to place them at the top. Overall, American women want to achieve C-Suite positions on their own merit rather than a government mandate.

In contrast, the United Nations recently pushed for increased data collection and availability on women’s employment as a means to increase transparency. Greater information on workplace gender dynamics and hiring practices are expected to give women a competitive edge and more negotiating power. In this case, knowledge is power. Prominent voices, such as Melinda Gates, have publically voiced support of these measures to increase transparency in business, saying, “to close the gender gap, we have to close the data gap.”

This all comes on the heels of recent evidence that indicates that businesses tend to perform better when they have women in upper-level leadership positions. While claims that gender diversity leads to “supercharged” returns may be hyperbolic, there are some clear economic benefits for these companies to diversify the C-Suite.  While no regulatory apparatus guarantees workplace gender diversity, businesses looking to increase their stock value and overall bottom line may turn to internal mechanisms to encourage greater female participation.

That is not to say that the solution is to leave businesses to their own devices. Taken in a vacuum, the benefits of female CEOs could just as easily serve as a rallying cry to call for gender quotas. Rather, something should be done to address the middle of the business hierarchy by increasing the size of the pool of women contenders for executive positions. This relies not just on businesses to provide more support for female managers but also opens up the space for policy options to help women in the workplace and give women greater freedom to pursue their ambitions.

Maxwell Wade contributed to this post.

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