26 September 2023

Survey says wrong: The best CEOs for women can’t all be men!

Start the conversation

Tarla Lambert* says a recent survey to find the ‘best’ CEOs for women was seriously flawed and completely overlooked critical measures of leadership.

Image: phototechno

Can the best CEOs for women be men?

One ranking last week suggested just that.

Out of a list of the top 50 CEOs for women, compiled by job site Comparably, only four were female: Accenture’s Julie Sweet, General Motors’ Mary T. Barra, Lockheed Martin’s Marilyn A. Hewson, and Vertafore’s Amy Zupon — but none managed to crack the top 10.

The data was aggregated from anonymous survey responses from female employees at the largest US companies (500+ workforce) between 23 March 2017 and 23 March 2018.

Scores were based on anecdotal evidence to make sure the focus remained on the CEO rather than the organisation itself, while a minimum of 50 female employees had to take part in the exercise for a CEO to qualify.

So, is it really possible?

First, let me start by acknowledging the fact that the men represented on this list are by all intents and purposes doing a solid enough job.

Assumedly, given the feedback, their workforces value their leadership style and feel at least partially supported.

But, the gaping holes in this analysis are too hard to ignore and frankly, it’s a little hard to keep a straight face as I sit at my desk writing this.

First, Comparably said factors regarding organisation-wide policies like parental leave, flexible work, leadership pathways and mentoring programs were not considered since these focused more on how women feel about the overall organisation rather than just their leader.

Come again?

I must be missing something here, but surely, surely, there’s an overlap between the organisation and the leader who runs said organisation?

Without a leader shaping the organisation, isn’t the organisation just an inanimate object?

The hard policies of an organisation reflect the leader in charge; they reflect the leader’s understanding of the issues facing their team and their willingness to create meaningful change.

It’s hard to accept that such a critical measure of leadership success could be left out of this evaluation altogether.

Without it, this list becomes little more than a popularity contest and not even a very plausible one.

Who’s to say the CEOs listed didn’t persuade, bribe or coerce their staff to complete the survey?

Call me cynical, but I think it’s a valid consideration.

Even putting the arbitrariness of this to one side, the biggest problem with this survey is that it completely disregards the notion that women “need to see the change they aspire to be”.

The best CEOs for women need to include women, period.

But the reality is, female CEOs are hard to find in the world’s biggest organisations.

In 2018, only 24 women head up Fortune 500 companies despite accounting for 50.9 per cent of the US population.

In Australia, the situation is pretty grim as well.

According to the Australian Institute of Company Directors, women account for just 26.7 per cent of ASX 200 directorships, with five boards in the ASX 200 still having no female representation.

The percentage of female CEOs hovers around the 5 per cent mark.

But the women in the mix are certainly causing an impact.

Take Catherine Tanna, for instance, Energy Australia’s Managing Director, who this year declared she’d be ending the company’s gender pay gap within 24 hours.

She did, and 350 women at the company were compensated accordingly.

Or let’s look at Medibank, which, with female chairperson Elizabeth Alexander, became the best company for families this week by removing titles of “primary” and “secondary” carer, giving all employees — mums and dads — 14 weeks of paid parental leave within two years of their child’s birth.

These are gutsy commitments, but ultimately, they’re ones that stem from recognition and understanding of the unique challenges facing female workers.

When I think about the idea of the best female leaders (for me, as a woman), my mind instantly conjures up images of Malala and Michelle, Margaret and Indira, Hillary and Julia.

I may not agree wholly with their style or ideologies, but they are the women I look up to, because they are the ones who managed to climb, against odds, to the top.

For women in any workforce in any country, this is true.

We may like our male bosses, we may find them affable and charismatic; we may even find them influential and proactive on issues that mean something to us.

They may be good leaders.

But they will never truly understand our plight.

That’s why at least half of the best CEOs for women, need to be women themselves.

* Tarla Lambert is the publisher for Women’s Agenda in Sydney. She tweets at @tarla_lambert.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.