byFairygodbosson Jul 23, 2015

Why Female CEOs Can't Necessarily Make Life Better for Other Women

Photo credit:Time Magazine

Fairygodboss members sometimes say their companies have "a boys' club feel".  But what exactly does this mean?  In some cases, they are literally referring to a group of similar-aged, similar-looking men with similar backgrounds running their companies.  But rarely is a company's senior management exclusively male in this day and age.  And can a company with female leadership or even a female CEO be a "boys' club"?

We think the answer is yes.  And we found an explanation for this in an unlikely place: Elizabeth Warren's NYTimes best-selling book, A Fighting Chance.  Whatever you think of her politics, Warren's story is incredibly inspiring and compelling.  Raised very modestly in Oklahoma, she was the first member of her family to attend college, and got into politics late in her career.  Time magazine ran a piece called "The Sheriffs of Wall Street" with a cover photo we've shown above: all 3 were women.  The article profiled Sheila Bair, then chair of the FDIC, Mary Schapiro, former chair of the SEC, and Elizabeth Warren, then chair of a panel monitoring the 2008 TARP program.  Warren reflects on the lack of women in finance:

"What is it about finance that makes women so scarce in the corner offices?  And why indeed were three women now the sheriffs of Wall Street?  I can't answer for Sheila or Mary, but I do have a thought about why I had ended up in this position: I was an outsider.  I had never inhabited the cozy world of high finance, never played golf with a foursome of CEOs, never smoked cigars at the club."

If a woman trying to advance must "fit in", she faces an uphill battle.  Most women look and act differently to men, and there's not much they can do about that.  Some companies recognize this and have decided to train their employees about unconscious biases that tend to be based on pattern-recognition. Biases and assumptions about women and mothers are one of the reasons women in finance - and many other industries -- still remain "stuck in the middle" of corporate hierarchies.

Being an "insider" is about more than just fitting in, however.  Warren describes a dinner she had with the former Treasury of the Secretary who gave her advice about how to be more effective in politics:

"He [Larry Summers] teed it up this way: I had a choice.  I could be an insider or I could be an outsider.  Outsiders can say whatever they want.  But people on the inside don't listen to them.  Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas.  People -- powerful people -- listen to what they have to say.  But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule.  They don't criticize other insiders."

Our point is this: As more women become senior managers, a 'boys' club' is less literally about gender, and more about group-think.  After all, if the few strong women at the top can't be critical of their peers, it means they're unlikely to be advocates for dramatic change.  Its perfectly fine -- and very laudable -- for these top women to encourage and support other women.  They can do things like give advice, serve as a role model, mentor other women, and participate in their companies' womens' support groups.  Don't get us wrong.  These are all very important things that we believe make a difference. 

However, it's much more difficult to criticize their companies' recruitment, retention, and promotion policies even if that is where change really needs to happen.  Being critical and advocating really hard change typically means they're speaking out against other insiders.  And insiders protect insiders.

We can't fault executive women for this: self-preservation is a powerful, natural instinct.  Its probably one of the characteristics of these women that got them to the top, in the first place.  But it does mean that larger changes may, indeed, have to come from "outsiders".


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