Interview: Numbers of U.S. women CEOs, board members still far below men, says U.S. expert

09:43, March 08, 2010      

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In spite of the great progress American women have made over the last century, when it comes to parity with men, especially in the corporate world, women still have a long way to go, says a women's expert in Chicago.

Deirdre Joy Smith, the founder, president and visionary behind POWER: Opening Doors for Women?, a program that provides a platform for women in C-level and senior management positions and connects them with high-potential women, made the remarks in an exclusive interview with Xinhua on Friday.

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the March 8 International Women's Day, an event that originated in Chicago, Smith said: "It is a tremendous celebration of the strides that women have made across the world. Traditionally, women have been active with their families and in their communities. However, when they have taken their rightful places at work, they have proved themselves to be consistent builders and leaders."

Unfortunately, Smith pointed out: "After one century, we still have not reached full parity with men in many aspects. At Fortune 500 companies, only 3 percent of CEOs are women. In board rooms, only 15 percent of members are women. And although women make up more than half of the students in law schools, only 18 percent of them become equity partners of law firms."

She continued: "And we still have not had a woman as the president of the United States. Women who run for high offices are still treated with sexism -- just look at the media treatment for Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin."

From a global perspective, Smith thinks other countries have done a really good job in enforcing parity by law. "For example, Norway passed a law two years ago requiring that women comprise 40 percent of the board members of public companies. Now Spain, Canada, and other countries are actually enforcing those laws," she said.

However, Smith admitted that there has also been progress over the years in the United States. For example, she said, a lot more women are in the workforce, including in leadership positions.

"In 1995, 10 percent of board members were women, and in 2008, we raised that to about 15 percent. Although that is only a 5- percent increase in 15 years' time, it is still progress," she stressed.

"We definitely need more women in C-suites and more female lawyers as equity partners at law firms," Smith added.

She further explained: "Women purchase 80 to 85 percent of consumer goods. The fact that we are not in the corporate boardrooms to make these decisions about the products that we purchase does a disservice to everyone."

In addition, Smith used a study by Catalyst, a leading non- profit organization supporting women in business, to reinforce the necessity of having more senior women executives. The study shows when a large percentage of women work at the corporate suites, the company's actual return on investment is 34 percent.

Smith said: "It proves that having more women at the top affects a company's bottom line in a positive way. That is why more companies are currently making great efforts to retain, recruit and cultivate women leaders. It is to the company's advantage to make sure they are attracting the best female talent and that the talent stays there."

Asked why there have not been more women leaders in corporate America, Smith listed two underlining causes. First of all, she said, "women have a lot of obligations. Some women at law firms need to spend more than 80 hours a week in order to be a partner. But if you have a husband, children and outside obligations, it might prevent you from going to the next level because you are not in a position to contribute that much."

Secondly, Smith thinks women are not involved in the same informal networks as men, for instance, golf clubs and country clubs, where some of the very important decisions are made outside the traditional workplace.

"That is exactly why I created POWER: Opening Doors for Women, nearly seven years ago in Chicago," said Smith. Growing up in Chicago, Smith enjoyed a wonderful career as a political fundraiser for presidential campaigns in 2000. While working with many corporate donors at the time, she developed the idea of building the POWER program.

Smith said: "So far more than 5,000 women have participated in the program across the country. The whole purpose of the program is to connect senior level women with women of high potential. By organizing networking and educational events, it gives senior women executives the opportunity to impart their knowledge to women that are coming along, a process we call the pipeline. On the other hand, it also provides female college students with an opportunity to meet with women CEOs."

Smith strongly believes that women need to support women to get ahead and it is extremely important to prepare for the next generation of women leaders. She said: "We need to focus on developing high potential women and provide a platform for them through which they are able to realize their potential. When it is time for them to move to C-suites, they will have all the necessary tools and resources to be a success."

Talking about men's reaction to the POWER program, Smith said: "At first we only had women. But over the last couple of years, men have not only participated, but have also become sponsors. One reason for increased male participation is that many of these men have bright, young daughters and they want to see their daughters reach their full potential in the future. For example, you have this wonderful ten-year-old girl, and you should be able to tell her that she can be the U.S. president in the future if she wants. "

As a passionate and powerful woman leader in the country, Smith has a clear vision for women in the future. She stated: "My vision is that women are able to reach their full potential in whatever aspect they want. Women will have parity with men and earn a dollar for every dollar a man earns. Also, women will have strong networks and both male and female mentors to help them."

"And we need to take the time to focus on the next generation of women and make sure that we are leaving the door open for them to come in -- that is very important across every single sector," she added.

Smith has served on the Executive Committee of the Chicago Foundation for Women's Board of Directors and was a member of the Board Development Committee. She won the Kimpton Group's "Women Making History" award and was featured in the 2008 edition of Who' s Who in Black Chicago. Recently, she received the "Women on the Rise" award at Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias' "Smart Women, Smart Money" conference.

Source: Xinhua
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