Speakers at Stanford explored the standing of women in executive positions and discussed ways to nurture their potential and promote the diversity that benefits all organizations. 

Following are some of the key ideas;

Higher Barrier to Entry

Women remain underrepresented in boardrooms, elected offices, and executive suites, says Marianne Cooper, sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and an affiliate at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. Despite earning half of college degrees, “women are not at the table and their voices are not heard” in business and government, she says. With regard to boards, committees, and other decision-making entities, “the more powerful something is, the fewer women will be there.”Because of bias and gender stereotypes, women have to provide more evidence of competence than do men, Cooper says. “People aren’t expecting women to do as well and so they hold them to a higher standard,” forcing women to prove themselves repeatedly, she says.

To maximize the benefits of diversity, companies need to take full advantage of the expertise that women directors bring. “We actually have to have guidelines and ground rules and practices in place that leverage that diversity and make sure that everyone’s voice is being included,” she says.

Companies should rethink their criteria for advancement, such as nomination to a board, says Cooper. Some firms, for instance, want candidates to have worked overseas on a “global assignment,” a job that many women can’t pursue because of their spouses’ jobs. Companies could instead identify exactly what experience and skills an overseas posting brings and find other ways for candidates to gain them. “A lot of times we have criteria that can be changed,” says Cooper. “They’re malleable in ways that make them more inclusive.”

Meaningful Mentor Relationships

Women need to find mentors who can provide guidance and help them build on strengths and improve upon weaknesses. The best mentoring relationships have roots in a particular project or work product. Heidi Roizen, operating partner at venture firm DFJ, says she’s sometimes approached by individuals who ask her out of the blue to be a mentor, a request she compares to being asked to be a “pen-pal.” It’s “hard to just spin up a mentor relationship,” says Roizen, who earned her MBA from Stanford GSB in 1983. Rather, you want to have interacted with a potential mentor on a specific project. “Doing meaningful work with someone is the easiest way to mentor and be mentored,” she says.

A sponsor can provide an even bigger boost, says panelist Jane Shaw, a former Yahoo board member. While a mentor may provide advice, women can benefit from a sponsor “who will speak up for you, who will cash in their brownie chips for you” and actively provide support when you’re looking to advance, she says. Like a mentoring relationship, a sponsoring relationship must also be a two-way street. “If that person sticks out their neck for you, you’ve got to work for them in a way, in terms of repaying it, whichever way it may be,” says Shaw.

Individuals who want to be a mentor should be aware that male and female mentees are likely to raise different questions and issues. “You have to be able to deal with specific situations in different ways,” says panelist Bill Ruh, GE Digital’s chief executive and senior vice president of parent GE. Mentors themselves also need a full understanding and appreciation of diversity; Ruh says that as a mentor, he for instance is conscious of not picking mentees “who look or act like me.” Mentors who don’t incorporate diversity in their thought processes “are probably not having any diversity in how you’re hiring and promoting people.”

Building the Network

Women can benefit from joining employee groups, a prime way to meet and build relationships with colleagues and leaders. For example, women at GE Digital, which doesn’t have a formal mentorship program, can nonetheless take advantage of various employee networks for women, African-Americans, Asian-Pacific Islanders, and other groups, says Ruh. Those groups are “very effective in creating networks and mentorships,” he says.

Gender in the Field

Panelists spoke anecdotally of the impact of their gender on their studies and interactions with male colleagues. Marleyna Mohler, a Stanford junior majoring in psychology, recalls receiving advice to avoid classes in feminist and gender, or “FemGen,” studies, so that potential employers wouldn’t assume she’s “a lawsuit waiting to happen.” Maxine Schlein, a member of the MBA 2017 class and fellow at XSeed Capital, says she has cultivated an interest in areas her male colleagues enjoy. And Roizen notes how frequently she as a director has assumed the task of firing a CEO, because her colleagues figured the CEO would react better if the news came from a woman. Roizen adds that being the only woman in the room can at times be a plus, making you stand out because “you’re different.”

XEDGlobal Program Choices for Emerging Women Leaders

Darden Executive Program – The Women’s Leadership Program
Stanford Business School- Executive Programs for Women Leaders
Yale School of Mangement – Women’s Leadership Program