Leading companies are increasingly embracing female leadership in the C-Suite—with implications for more gender-balanced ranks at large, including on their companies’ boards.
Global data from the June 2020 BoardEx Global Gender Diversity Report shows over two-dozen major countries have improved their performance in terms of gender equity on executive boards. In 2014, the average percentage of female representation on boards was less than 25% across these countries; in 2019, nearly 75% of these countries had exceeded this average.
Meanwhile, 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs were female in 2020. This figure represents an improvement in gender equity among these highest-ranking roles. 2020 BoardEx data also shows that female CEOs across the U.S. and U.K. are leading a shift in diversity efforts that not only improves gender equity among board members, but boosts equity across their companies—and society—as well.
Female Leadership Has Broader Implications for Companywide Equity and Performance
Indeed, companies with female CEOs have the best gender ratio among U.S. and U.K. companies that have women in key roles in general. That ratio is over one-third in both the U.K. (43%) and U.S. (36%), on average.
A closer look at overall gender ratios at three companies—Anthem Inc., General Motors Co., and The Hershey Co.—suggests improvements arrived in correlation with the appointment of female CEOs as well.
Michele Buck of The Hershey Co. is the New Face of the Company’s Long Tradition of Equity
Michele Buck began her role as President & CEO of The Hershey Co. in March of 2017, having served in multiple executive roles within the company preceding her appointment. Although Buck is the first female CEO of the 124-year-old company, she is quick to acknowledge the important roles female leaders have played throughout the company’s growth into a household American brand.
“Hershey has been fortunate to have been in the vanguard of women serving on our Board,” Hershey Co. told BoardEx. “Our first female Board member, Francine Neff, joined Hershey more than 40 years ago and served as a trailblazer paving the way for me and other Hershey women.”
Hershey achieved 50/50 gender representation across their business in 2017 and have closed the pay equity gap “with men and women both earning dollar for dollar,” they said. Although many of these efforts were already underway when Buck became CEO, “Michele has continued inclusion and diverse representation as an enterprise priority and is an avid advocate for diversity starting at the very top.”
Indeed, gender equity on the Hershey Co. board grew from 18% in 2016 to 45% in 2018, where most of that growth preceded Buck’s appointment. Today, 50% of the company’s board are gender and racially diverse members. Buck reinforces that success by empowering others both inside and outside the company—by hiring women to key commercial roles in their supply chain, strategy and insights, innovation, and company growth positions, for example; as well as reinforcing their Women’s Business Resource Group, which empowers women across the business world.
Mary Barra of General Motors Co. is a Bellwether for a Changing Auto Industry
Marry Barra became the first woman to lead a major global automaker in 2014, when she was appointed CEO of the company. Although males still make up the bulk of senior leadership across the industry, Barra’s appointment has major implications for her company. The female-male gender ratio on the General Motors Board of Directors exceeded 50% for the first time in the company’s history in 2019, for example.
“In recent years, [the GM] Board has worked to strategically refresh its membership to ensure it has the breadth of experience to guide the company during times just like these—when companies are facing new and unexpected challenges,” Barra shared in 2020 notification to shareholders.
Barra herself has extended her efforts for greater equity beyond the scope of gender—and her company—alone. After George Floyd’s death in May 2020, Barra established an Inclusion Advisory Board to “guide our work to improve diversity and inclusion in our company, with the ultimate aspiration of making GM the most inclusive company in the world.” The new board includes leaders from Skillman Foundation, Ignition Media Group, and GM, among organizations.
Similarly, Barra has aligned GM’s business aspirations with the broader goal of environmental sustainability. “Even in the face of this current environment of uncertainty, I continue to believe GM has an unprecedented opportunity to do more for our stakeholders and, ultimately, the planet,” said the notification. “We have the right Board, at the right time, to ensure we emerge from this even stronger.”
Providing a female leadership perspective at senior levels of the organization provides long-delayed practical benefits for the company as well. “Understanding the transportation priorities of women is crucial for the success of automakers, especially because women are extremely influential in the car-buying process,” where 60% of women are “the sole decision-maker when it comes to purchasing their next car,” USA Today reports.
Gail Boudreaux of Anthem Continues to Close the Female Leadership Gap in Healthcare
Gail Boudreaux was CEO at UnitedHealthcare before becoming President & CEO of Anthem Inc. in November 2017. Although the Anthem Board is 40% female today, Boudreaux has been outspoken about her goal of achieving a 50% gender ratio “because we’re quite frankly a business and an industry that serves [women],” she told Health Evolution in 2019. “We mostly have women employees and serve women as our constituents as well—and we don’t really mirror our communities yet.” Indeed, although the vast majority of healthcare employees are female, fewer and fewer women hold positions as the responsibility levels of healthcare roles increase.
This has real implications for patient and employee experiences. “A more equitable workplace drives better innovation, performance, employee experiences, and patient outcomes,” McKinsey reports, where approximately 57% of patients who visit emergency departments are women—and a majority of those are women of color. Women in authority can help mend flawed mechanisms within their companies, such as non-inclusive hiring and advancement practices that impact female employees as well.
At Anthem, the value and results of female leadership are becoming more prominent at multiple levels of the company, where women in leadership roles continue to draw public praise and impact attitudes about gender equity among their own teams and in in the industry at large. Boudreaux herself was recognized as one of the ’50 Most Powerful Women’ by Fortune Magazine (2008), and named one of the ‘Top 25 Women in Healthcare’ by Modern Healthcare Magazine in 2013.
A Time for New Traditions in Corporate Leadership
Although broad transformation to senior leadership takes time, these companies are among those that are working hard to advance diversity initiatives and mirror the communities they serve. These three CEOs have shown how a commitment to diversity and inclusion can improve opportunities and outcomes within the organization and can influence change within their industries.
It is, perhaps, the start of a new set of traditions in corporate leadership. As Milton Hershey, founder of The Hershey Co., famously said, “The Help-the-Other-Fellow principle is the only one that will succeed in modern business.”