Avivah Wittenberg Cox – Gender Balancing the Business World – Part 1

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox was a guest speaker recently at the Chautauqua Institute Women’s Club. As the founder of the women’s club and owner of 20-first, the world’s leading gender consultancies, she was the perfect person to talk about the challenges women face in the business world today.

Her role as a consultant is to bring to the attention of CEOs the value of having women in leadership roles within the company. She offered some interesting, and at times frightening insights into the challenges for women today.

We’ve already talked about the fact that more women are graduating from college than men and women make 80% of the buying decisions for families, but did you know that 90% of women are in staff jobs rather than board positions?

Avivah stressed that when we look at the lack of women in leadership roles we have been asking the wrong questions. It isn’t a matter of what is wrong with women that they aren’t being promoted the right questions is:

What is the matter with our company that we can’t attract, retain and develop the majority of the highest educated population in the world?

That certainly puts a different spin on the situation. Avivah said that when she meets with business leaders, i.e. men, they believe the gender problem has already been resolved.  Their response? Look at our hiring rates; we are hiring just as many women as men.

However, when Avivah follows up with the question of how many of those women make it to positions of leadership; the answer is usually the same…very few, if any. The CEOs are puzzled.  We hired them, what happened?

There are three reasons that Avivah has discovered over her years of working with some of the largest corporations in the world:

1.  Career Cycle Issues.  Women and men come out of college, fired up and excited about their careers. Women put families and marriage on hold to establish themselves but around their early to mid-thirties, the desire to have children becomes a priority. Women continue working but perhaps not with the same gusto.

Men, on the other hand, don’t need to back off their work commitment while their wives have children. At the same time this is occurring – companies are beginning to develop their key employees.  They wait until the employee has been with them for some time before developing and promoting; right about the time those workers hit their mid-thirties. The men are available to say yes to a promotion or travel or a transfer but the women have stepped back to have a family.

The career train only passes by once, said Avivah.  When women hit their 40s they are ready to get back in the game full steam ahead, but the career train has long since passed them by. They are “too old” to develop into high level positions. So what do they do? Many are leaving to start their own companies.

This was incredibly eye-opening for me. It seems so unfair and yet you can almost see how it happens.  The big separator at this time is the willingness to transfer. One of the attendees in the audience happened to work in the HR department of her company. She told the group that a willingness to transfer was one of the first qualifiers her company looked at when selecting people to develop and promote. Recently, she’d convinced the operations team to take that measurement out of the equation and they were shocked to discover a completely different list of employees who were the most qualified and ready for promotion – many of them were women who’d been knocked out of consideration because they were unwilling to move.

There are two more reasons women aren’t making it to the top, but I’ll save them for the next installment. In the meantime, consider Avivah’s parting words to the audience:

“This isn’t a women’s issues – this is a company issue. Companies with women in leadership roles are more profitable and more successful.”

So we need to stop thinking of ourselves as a diversity group. Just how many genders are there? It isn’t a diversity issue or a women’s issue – it is a business issue.

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