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More women executives, but still few CEOs

Women have made it to the C-level, but disparities still exist

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A seasoned executive with a long history in startup companies recently mentored a female executive through Athena San Diego, the networking/mentoring organization for female executives.

The mentee was working with two male co-founders, who held other jobs and worked part-time at the startup, but she had a hard time seeing herself as the CEO of the company -- despite her experience and an MBA. But with mentoring, she overcame that and asked for the top job. Today she is the CEO.

Nikki Zahl, who sits on the board of Athena and is a former life sciences executive, told this story as an example of some challenges that have held women back from advancing to the top job.

Within Athena -- a 15-year old organization with 500 members and 45 member companies, many of them from the life sciences industry and service providers -- she has observed certain common issues with women who are mid- and upper-level managers.

“(One of the challenges) is their perception about their capabilities. Each woman knows she is capable but sometimes she just does not take that risk-taking opportunity,” said Zahl, who is involved with accelerators that help incubate startups in the region.

The numbers
In San Diego, about 37 percent of companies in life sciences, technology and service providers have one woman in the C-suite, a number that has increased slightly over the last couple years, compared to 10 years ago.

The numbers decline sharply in more traditional industries like defense, construction and real estate.

CREW, the organization of construction and real estate women, conducted a national survey in 2010 that found that about 9 percent of women held C-level positions, a decline from 2005 when there were 13 percent in top jobs. However, more women have been entering the field in recent years, even if C-suite positions continue to be a male domain.

Among Athena members in San Diego, 15 percent of Athena members are C-level executives, 65 percent of them are at the vice president or director level and the remaining 20 percent are mid-level managers who seek mentoring as they rise up the ladder.

2012 was a record year for woman CEOs in America, who saw their numbers increase – Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO), IBM (NYSE: IBM) and others, made notable female hires for the top job, taking the total from 11 to 20 among Fortune 500 companies.

In San Diego, notable female CEOs include Linda Lang at Jack in the Box (Nasdaq: JACK) and Susan Salka at AMN Healthcare (NYSE: AHS).

Amy Bergen, Athena’s executive director, has been tracking the rise of female executives through a survey the organization has conducted for the last 10 years. She found that often what holds women back is the need to consistently exceed expectations, when the intangibles come into play, and the willingness to take risks.

“They feel that when they have been able to achieve where they want to be, (it’s because) they have been recognized for their risk-taking abilities, for being able to dive into a project,” Bergen said.
“Women balance family commitment and child rearing, which is another reason they are held back -- some body’s got to do it and it seems to fall more on women, although things are evolving. We are seeing more stay-at-home dads, nannies and other support.”

Support systems

Zahl highlighted an important distinction -- she’s seeing more young women and working mothers driving decisions at startups, but at the big companies, today’s female executives wait until they get to a certain point in their careers before they have children and try to balance work with life.

Or, if they try to have it all -- including children while they are on the fast track -- the father often becomes a stay-at-home dad.

Bergen sees parallels in this aspect with men in top jobs who often tend to be the sole income-earners in their families.

Examples like Marissa Meyers, Yahoo’s CEO, tend to be more the exception than a trend: Meyers famously took the top job at Yahoo while she was pregnant, took a three-week maternity leave to have her son, and was back in the saddle full-time.

More recently, she has been raising hackles with an internal memo that ordered all telecommuting employees to be physically present at the office every day, starting in June this year.

Work-from-home flex jobs make employers more attractive for talented workers looking to balance work with family, in addition to saving money for the company, so Meyers’ decision to ban flex time has created an uproar.

Aside from the usual struggle to balance family and work that most working mothers can relate to, another challenge for female executives has been the difficulty in breaking into informal networks.

“Although women work hard to move up, they still feel that they are excluded from the more male-dominated informal networks,” Zahl said. “Athena is one tool they’re using to tackle this, being able to talk to others, get new ideas, inspirations from others’ experiences.”

Widening cracks in the ceiling

Marketing and human resources departments tend to have a larger number of women than finance or research and development, areas that have been harder for women to break into at the higher levels of management.

Organizations like Athena offer female executives networking opportunities and put together focused peer mentoring programs and educational workshops on how to get on the boards of private, public and nonprofit entities.

Bergen said that about 60 women have graduated from the program and several of them have made it onto boards at local businesses.

San Diego tends to mirror the trend in other cities, where more women have been getting executive positions, but not as many have made it to the top jobs in the C-suite.

Despite the disparities in advancement opportunities and compensation, Bergen said the survey found that female executives were bullish about the future and felt that success for them translated into making an impact.

Some companies have recognized the need for diversity at the top and have initiated their own programs, like biotech firm Gen-Probe that began the Women’s Leadership Initiative internally, which has mentored women managers for leadership roles. It worked so well that Hologic (Nasdaq: HOLX), which acquired Gen-Probe last fall, is expanding the program across the organization.

Tooting one’s horn is a necessary evil that many women may not recognize as a requisite to crest the top. Zahl pointed out how women often put their heads down and get their work done, then rush home to take care of their family, but often, it’s not enough to let your work speak for yourself.

“It’s important to make people aware of what you’ve achieved,” she said. “You have to take the bold steps you need to, to lead to success.”


-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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