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Research: Board Experience Is Helping More Women Get CEO Jobs
HBR: JULY 29, 2019
The news about U.S. women’s presence in the C-suite — and especially the CEO job — has been pretty bleak. Nationwide, fewer than 5% of CEOs of public companies are women. In the Fortune 500, that number fell by 25% from 2017 to 2018, dipping from 32 (6.4%) to 24 (4.8%), before rising back in 2019.
Yet, results from a study we conducted recently suggests that this decades-old problem of stagnant growth may soon turn around.
To hire a female CEO, a public company’s board of directors must identify qualified women to be included in the candidate pool. The historical pattern has been to require that candidates have prior CEO experience. This, of course, creates an obvious problem: Because there are so few female CEOs, there are few female candidates in a public company’s talent pool. Our data suggests corporate boards have been finding a creative way out of this chicken-and-egg dilemma. Specifically, they seem to have relaxed the prior-CEO-experience requirement for women and are using prior corporate board service as a proxy qualification.
We compared the career paths of 100 female public company CEOs with those of a cohort of men in similar industry sectors and company sizes. We found two significant differences between the career paths of men and women who lead public companies. Prior to becoming a public company CEO:
Women were significantly more likely to serve on a corporate board than men. More than half of the women (59%) served on a public company board, as compared with 42% of the men. Almost twice as many women (23%) as men (12%) served on a private company board.
For those recruited from the outside, women were almost twice as likely to be promoted from a non-CEO title as men. More than half the outsider men appointed to lead a public company (52%) were CEOs of private companies or divisions of public companies, as compared with just 18% of women.
Together these findings not only illuminate a viable pathway to CEO for aspiring women (through board service) but also offer a suggestion for companies and boards that seek gender diversity in their CEO ascension plans: Assist high-potential executive women in securing corporate board seats.
Our research, coupled with recent growth trends for women appointed to serve on corporate boards, may signal a significant increase of women in the CEO talent pool in the years to come. The 2018 U.S. Spencer Stuart Board Index found that women represent a record-breaking 40% of the incoming class of board directors (up from 36% in 2017). Women now represent 24% of all directors, up from 22% in 2017. Further, 17% of the incoming class are 50 years old or younger, up slightly from 16% last year, and more than half of these next-gen directors (53%) are women. Read More