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Why men must advance women's leadership Guest columnist Barry Ostrowsky, CEO and president, Barnabas Health

Barnabas Health CEO and President Barry Ostrowsky: “Women are drastically underrepresented in positions of power.”
Barnabas Health CEO and President Barry Ostrowsky: “Women are drastically underrepresented in positions of power.” - ()

In 2015, only 15 percent of board seats at publicly traded companies in New Jersey were held by women, according to a report on corporate gender diversity by Executive Women of New Jersey. While women make up almost half of all full-time workers, they represent less than 17 percent of directors in Fortune 500 companies. These statistics are not new, but they are unacceptable.

Women continue to be chronically and drastically underrepresented in positions of power despite the fact that research resoundingly demonstrates the tremendous business value that women bring to the table. In my industry, health care, the number of women in senior levels of governance is only slightly better. As the president and CEO of the state’s largest integrated health care delivery system, I am proud of the efforts that we are making in our own organization, but there is always room for growth. The time has come for an honest conversation about the role that men, including myself, must play in ensuring equal access to leadership for women. The bottom line is that the decision makers in nearly every industry are men, and therefore it is incumbent upon us to facilitate the change needed.

Why aren’t there more women leaders? While there is an abundance of women with exceptional leadership ability, unfortunately, the perception still exists that there aren’t enough qualified women to assume senior executive positions, and in particular board seats. I have heard this stated by colleagues far too often because, like most CEOs, including myself, they are primarily interacting with other male corporate leaders. The reality is that most board seats are still filled through informal contacts made through the “old boys’ network.” Board member requests and similar conversations often happen in exclusively male spaces, like the men’s locker room after golf. A similar avenue for women to express their interest to sitting board members doesn’t exist.

In addition to these barriers, the EWNJ report identified other systemic challenges:

  • The traditional pipeline for board members is the pool of retired CEOs, which has an even greater gender gap than the current population of serving board members. In 2014, there were 371 board seats filled in Fortune 500 companies and of those, 53 percent of new board directors were retired CEOs or retired senior business executives.
  • The lack of board turnover is another issue. The median age of board directors is increasing and the number of seats available to new directors is decreasing. In 2014, there were 16 percent fewer new directors than in 2004, and the board seats that are becoming available continue to be filled by men.

Why should men advance women’s leadership? Women are excellent and capable advocates for themselves, but their reach and influence can only extend so far when barriers exist that are beyond their control. When men choose to advocate for women in purely male spaces, it levels the playing field. Often, when boards talk about diversity, it’s because people think it’s the right thing to do from a social standpoint, when, in fact, diversity makes sound business sense.

Research shows that companies that have boards with higher numbers of women deliver significantly better returns on equity, sales and capital. The facts demonstrate clearly that women are a significant value add to the balance sheet of any corporation.

How should men advance women’s leadership? I believe that it is time for male CEOs to take bold action to ensure women have equal access to the C-suite and the boardroom. That’s why I am calling on my fellow CEOs to join me and take a pledge to adhere to the recommendations for increasing gender diversity in the EWNJ report, “A Seat at the Table: Celebrating Women and Board Leadership.” To view the full report visit ewnj.org/research.

EWNJ’s recommendations are as follows:

  • Companies must commit to including at least one woman for consideration on every slate.
  • Boards should appoint an internal advocate for women in order to establish a formal pathway to senior governance.
  • Boards should use professional search firms as a way to create diverse pools of candidates, which would include not only demographic characteristics, but also experience and outlook.
  • Boards should utilize a skill set inventory to identify gaps in the knowledge of existing members. For example, executives with expertise in areas such as global branding, supply chain, human resources, risk assessment, IT, finance, social media and manufacturing are increasingly being tapped to serve on boards.
  • Board directors must commit to identifying senior and mid-level women in their own companies who have the potential to serve as directors.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the lack of racial and gender diversity in leadership roles in corporate America. Ethnically diverse leaders remain grossly underrepresented in senior leadership, despite research that shows that companies with ethnically diverse boards and top management outperform their industry median by 35 percent. Therefore, I am also asking my fellow CEOs to go a step further and commit to applying EWNJ’s recommendations to both racial and gender diversity.

Diverse boards and executive teams are crucial to the long-term success of a corporation in today’s market. Establishing practices that will encourage inclusion at every level will benefit an organization’s financial growth, social awareness and professional competency.

Companies that succeed in creating pathways for progress in these areas will be announced at EWNJ’s Salute to the Policy Makers Gala on May 5. The gala honors the contributions of outstanding New Jersey executive women leaders from both the private and the public sectors. I am proud to be the honorary chair of this year’s gala.

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