Focusing on intentional disruption: How women and men can impact diversity in leadership

In collaboration with the Mike Ilitch School of Business at Wayne State University, Inforum’s biennial Michigan Women’s Leadership Report seeks to shine a light on the makeup of women at the highest levels within public companies throughout the state, which it has been doing since the report’s inception in 2003.

“We began to publish this report in 2003 because no one else was measuring women’s progress in corporate leadership. We continue to publish it because measuring change is important. And although some progress has been made, notably on boards of directors, women still are not overall being equitably considered for the promotions that ultimately lead to C-suite positions,” says Becky Puckett-Wood, Inforum vice president of corporate and member engagement.

Currently analyzing the makeup of 77 companies categorized into three tiers based on revenue and market capitalization, the report quantifies the diversity within the company’s executive officers, named executive officers, and board of director roles. Though the methodology has changed over time, the findings have still pointed to positive shifts.

“The biggest change has been on boards of directors. Because we have changed our methodology slightly [over time], we can’t do a direct comparison in all respects, but a sample of 21 of Michigan’s largest public companies shows that the percentage of women directors on their boards has increased from 16% to 29% since 2007,” says Puckett-Wood.

Examining the broken rung

To highlight the report and foster dialogue around it, the findings were presented at Inforum’s Women’s Leadership Report event on February 4. Included in this year’s event was a panel made up of Camila Noordeloos, principal at Grand Ventures; Christina Keller, president of Cascade Engineering; and Mary Tuuk, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Rapids Symphony. The panel was moderated by Sandra Gaddy, chief executive officer of the Women’s Resource Center, and provided an opportunity for each woman leader to share their insights on the topic at hand.

Within this year’s report, one resounding consideration is the initial disparity in leadership created by the concept of the broken rung.

“Women are hired into corporate positions in nearly even numbers as men, but start losing ground at the first promotion,” says Puckett-Wood. “For every 100 men promoted or hired into their first management position, only 72 women are given the opportunity to take the same step. The 2019 McKinsey and [] Women in the Workplace report refers to this a ‘broken rung’ in the career ladder. Given that the first promotion creates the pool for future promotions, it’s no surprise that the number of women in leadership positions decreases with each successive rung. [Their] report calculates that fixing that first broken rung would add one million women to management over the next five years,” she says.

For women of color, the disparity is even greater. According to the Leadership Report, only 2% of the executive officer roles, board positions, and named executive officer positions respectively were held by women of color within the companies reviewed. For Gaddy, this finding was, in a word, “disappointing.”

“We have many, many brilliant, talented, educated, and highly experienced executive women of color throughout the state and the country. There is no excuse,” she says.

Opportunities for change

Though the initial challenge created by the broken rung is substantial, there are other barriers that exist. One of which is the limitations women can place on themselves.

“It’s very easy for us to put artificial barriers on [ourselves] and say we don’t have the right qualifications,” says Tuuk. “Don’t set artificial barriers on you on your potential,” she says, as opportunities often arise for which the applicant may not be completely qualified.

Keller referenced the difference in how women and men approach new opportunities. Men apply for positions when they are 60% qualified and women when they are 100% qualified, she shared. In line with Tuuk’s recommendation, Keller said that “women need to step out.”

Another limitation is created by not speaking up. “We can’t have opportunities where we’re not using our voices,” says Gaddy. “We’re not sugar, spice, and everything nice. We’re powerful!”

“We all have a responsibility to keep pushing things,” says Noordeloos. “Speak up. If each one of us is speaking up when we see issues, people will take note.”

A call to action

Inforum president and chief executive officer Terry Barclay said the focus on fixing the broken rung is “an investment in the future” and shared her optimism as she looks forward. For attendees, she issued a call to action, more specifically, a “call for champions, including men,” highlighting that “what senior leadership does matters.”

Noordeloos also calls for men to get involved in creating change. “Expand your network. Come to these events. Bring your friends. Let’s mingle,” she says. “Get to know women who are doing amazing work out there.”

On the flip side, for women, it may mean “infiltrating male events,” says Keller. 

“It comes down to networks. If we can break down those networks, that’s the first step,” she says. She does acknowledge this may push the boundaries of one’s comfort zone, but encourages women to “have the grace to go to those events that may be a little uncomfortable.”

For Gaddy, who partially credits her success to date to having access to training and development opportunities, she encourages women to be proactive and prepare themselves for potential leadership roles. “Work on sharpening the skills needed to provide you [with] the opportunities to advance. For example, seek out leadership development programs outside of your company [and improve] your emotional intelligence skills and your communication skills,” she says. 

Changing the view at the top from the top

Within organizations, Puckett-Wood encourages leaders to take steps such as creating goals for the number of women in leadership roles and providing women with the proper training to equip them for the positions. “You start with a mindset and a commitment and then put practices and measurements into place around that commitment. It isn’t about quotas, but it is about making sure that managers and executives step out of their comfort zones to consider, interview, and fairly evaluate qualified candidates that aren’t always considered. When all of the talent pool is given the opportunity to rise, companies benefit as well as individuals.”

One of these benefits is the results provided by diverse teams. “The quality of the conversation and the quality of the outcome is better when there’s diversity in the room,” says Tuuk. She also shares that eliminating any unconscious bias within hiring practices may take work. “It takes intentional disruption not to replicate [unconscious bias] in the boardroom,” she says.

“Leaders seeking to create a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion must understand there are no shortcuts or quick fixes in developing an inclusive workplace where all have the opportunity to thrive. Your leadership can be very powerful. When you model standing up or speaking up for others, team members will be empowered and feel safe to do so as well. When seeking to develop a diverse and inclusive culture, it is critical that leaders not place this work on employees of color but rather be visible modeling this work themselves,” says Gaddy.

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing, and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!
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