Changing Perceptions of Women by Giving them a Chance to Succeed at the Top

The women’s empowerment initiative Lean In made headlines recently by partnering with Getty Images to produce “a library of images devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them.”

Lean In was launched by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg with the publication of a book by the same name encouraging women to become more ambitious and make the best use of their opportunities. Among other things, the organization hopes to see more women running companies and serving on corporate boards — which, despite the decades of progress women have made in the workplace, remains shockingly rare.

Only one in ten board members worldwide are women, and just 4.6 percent of Fortune 1000 companies have female CEOs. While women now make up 40-50 percent of the workforce in many countries, the upper echelons of the business world are still overwhelming male-dominated.

In this context, the focus on how professional women are portrayed makes perfect sense: greater visibility — and the change in attitudes that goes along with it — is an enormous asset for women striving for positions at the very top of the business world. Stock photos from sites like Getty Images are used on countless news sites, blogs, company websites, and advertisements.

“The Lean In Collection has women who are speaking, leading meetings and showing through their gestures that it’s their ideas that are being expressed,” said Pam Grossman, Getty’s director of visual trends, in an interview with the Washington Post.

Sandberg herself puts it more succinctly:  “You can’t be what you can’t see.” 

Despite years of advocacy, progress on increasing the number of women on corporate boards has been minimal at best. Sandberg herself — one of the world’s most accomplished businesswomen — was not brought on to Facebook’s previously all-male board for more four years after being hired for a top leadership role.

“We’ve ceased making progress at the top in any industry anywhere in the world,” Sandberg said in an NPR interview. “Women are getting more and more of the graduate degrees, more and more of the undergraduate degrees, and it’s translating into more women in entry-level jobs, even more women in lower-level management. But there’s absolutely been no progress at the top. You can’t explain away 10 years. Ten years of no progress is no progress.”

Fortunately, that advocacy now seems to be bearing fruit in the form of targets, quotas, and other commitments backed by governments or securities exchanges.

The only country which approaches gender parity in board seats is Norway, where a law requires 40 percent of corporate board members to be women (the current ratio is 40.9 percent). But more and more countries — mostly in Europe — are adopting gender parity targets, and even the voluntary ones (as in the UK) have achieved real results. In other places, pressure from big investors like U.S. state pension funds and growing media attention is starting to drive change.

It doesn’t seem to take a big nudge to turn talk into action,  especially with so many capable, successful professional women already in the workforce. A 2011 IFC publication compiled interviews with male company directors from around the world, who suggested that oftentimes the choice to nominate men over women is an unconscious one driven by the fact that men’s professional networks are mostly male (which also explains why once a firm has one female board member or a female CEO, the ratio tends to equalize more rapidly). To help combat this problem, the Women on Board initiative has compiled a global database of thousands of “board-ready” women.

Given that a growing body of evidence also suggests that companies with more women in leadership roles perform better in the market, it seems companies have little to lose and a lot to gain by bringing on more women at the top.

There is still much more work to be done, especially outside of Europe, where many emerging-market countries and even advanced economies have abysmal rates of female representation at the top (less than 1 percent in Japan). When it comes to changing cultural perceptions that prevent women from fully contributing their talents to the economy, each female CEO is worth more than 1,000 pictures.

Jon Custer is Social Media / Communications Coordinator at CIPE.

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