Women business leaders share thoughts on gender diversity, leadership

The Kansas City-based Central Exchange offers a variety of programming for women in business, such as a presentation by marketing consultant Alicia Falcone above | Courtesy of Central Exchange
Kansas City’s Central Exchange offers a variety of programming for women business leaders, such as a presentation by marketing consultant Alicia Falcone (above). | Courtesy of Central Exchange

The number of women leading Fortune 500 companies reached an all-time high of 24 this year with the addition of six new female CEOs, including Mary Barra of General Motors. But the percentage of women running the top companies in the United States and in Missouri remains relatively low.

Central Exchange, a Kansas City nonprofit focused on business leadership development for women, reports that only 7 percent of the board members at the top 50 companies in Missouri and Kansas are women, compared with a national average of 16.9 percent.

Central Exchange is working to increase that percentage at the state level, and national efforts are also underway.

This summer, Pax World, a global investment firm, opened the Global Women’s Leadership Index, the first index to consist of securities of companies around the world that are committed to advancing women through gender diversity on their boards. Similarly, Barclays announced in July the creation of its Women in Leadership Trade Notes, which highlights U.S. companies with gender-diverse executive leadership and governance.

Emerging research links gender diversity to improved financial performance, corporate governance, and diversity of thought and skills. One such report, from the Global Leadership Forecast, showed that companies ranked at the top 20 percent in terms financial performance had 37 percent women leaders while those at the bottom 20 percent had just 19 percent women leaders.

Aimee Davenport, attorney for Evans & Dixon
Aimee Davenport | Courtesy of Aimee Davenport

Missouri Business Alert caught up with three female business leaders in Missouri to discuss gender diversity and leadership development for women across the state.

Aimee Davenport is an attorney for Evans and Dixon, a St. Louis-based law firm. Davenport specializes in environmental law and played a lead role in opening the company’s Columbia office.

Teresa Maledy is president and CEO of Commerce Bank, Central Missouri Region. She was recently named the 2014 Woman of Year by the Greater Missouri Leadership Challenge.

Cici Rojas is president and CEO of Kansas City’s Central Exchange. The nonprofit organization aims to support and promote business leadership, entrepreneurship and community service for women.

Missouri Business Alert: National statistics reveal that the number of women CEOs and board members has grown in recent years. Are you seeing similar changes in your field or city?

Aimee Davenport: I think the number of women in law is increasing, and there are some nice statistics at the law school level and at the early associate level. But when you look at the senior attorneys or partners, and certainly equity shareholder-type attorney levels, the numbers are still very low for women.

Teresa Maledy: I would say yes, in general. Historically within a commercial bank like Commerce, (female) leadership has typically risen through the commercial lending area. I was unusual in that I came up through the treasury area, which was a relatively new, specialized area within our company. So we’re seeing more women coming through the commercial lending, but we’re also seeing women in other leadership roles on the retail side, on the commercial side.

Cici Rojas: Yes I do, and you know part of it is a numbers game too. You have more women graduating from college, more women starting their own business, so at some point it’s all going to catch up. But we still have a lot of work to do. If we look at the data —we mine this data all the time at Central Exchange — the national average for women with paid corporate board seats is about 16 percent. In Kansas City, we’re about 9.1 percent, so we have some work to do.

MBA: One study suggests that “a lack of opportunity” holds back high-potential women from leadership positions. What’s your opinion on this?

Cici Rojas, President and CEO of Central Exchange | Courtesy of Central Exchange
Cici Rojas| Courtesy of Central Exchange

AD: I have my opinion on why there’s a lack of opportunity, and I think part of it is that most of our decision-makers are men. They relate better to other men, just because it’s human nature. The overlap that they have is going to be with other men. I don’t think the leadership qualities in women are necessarily understood or appreciated as much in our society as much as men. Now, that’s changing; it’s getting better. But I think, traditionally speaking, you think of the aggressive, strong man, and that’s what people look for and women have been overlooked because of some of that. But I think what you can do (to change) that is to keep doing what we’re doing, pushing to help other women, whether it be yourself, a colleague or someone you don’t know, to help other women get to those positions.

CR: I think women and men need to understand the importance of sponsorship. Men have done that for each other for a long time. Women need to do that for each other, so I think there’s absolutely an education component there. We need to support each other. And I think what men can do is understand the importance of sponsorship and take an active role in sponsoring high-potential women in their organization, because we know that once women have a good sponsor, one that’s very committed to their professional growth, their careers take off.

TM: I would say there are challenges for anybody who wants to move up in leadership. I don’t know that it’s just women compared to men, but if you think about it, just by the natural order of things, there are fewer leadership positions in a company overall. What it means to me is that the individual really needs to try to take advantage of opportunities where they are able to gain skills, maybe volunteer internally for task forces, for committees or projects that help them gain a deeper understanding and actually highlight how they are able to collaborate and problem solve. I think that’s the challenge — raising your hand and being bold enough to do that and then really digging in and demonstrating your talents and your work ethic and being noticed.

MBA: What are some of the steps that need to be taken to promote more gender diversity?

AD: The challenge before us, I think, is still to educate and make sure that the decision-makers at the organizations we’re working with understand that women in their childbearing years, if you want to keep them, they are long-term investments. You can’t look at them in a snapshot, not even in a couple years’ productivity. … You have to look at the lifespan of their careers because they are going to take some time to be less (productive) and then probably come back and be even better contributors because they’ve been able to have a fuller life. So I think it’s just a continued conversation with everyone and to make sure that it keeps being brought up and put on the table.

CR: Well, our goal at Central Exchange is 20 percent gender diversity in the C-suite and on corporate trade boards. … Part of (our strategy) is making sure that there’s plenty of women in the pipeline and that they are quality, talented women, and we have many of them. And I think that we’re starting to see more and more of that, but you have to have that pipeline built so that we have options.

MBA: What advice you would give for women who want to become leaders in your field?

Teresa Maledy, CEO of Commerce Bank, Central Missouri Region | Courtesy of Commerce Bank
Teresa Maledy | Courtesy of Commerce Bank

AD: I’d say, as a woman, you need to look at the decision-making women, find them in your community. If they can at all help you, don’t be afraid to approach them because most women who (have) had some success in what they do understand that it’s going to take that kind of reaching up, reaching downward or reaching any which way to help other women get into positions that are considered decision-making positions, on boards or upper level organizations. Now, I’m not saying to discount men. Look for men also to develop relationships with, but it’s really the women demographic that I think is going to be the most bang for the buck, the most helpful at the outset for women who are looking to move around or move into some of those upper-level positions.

CR: You have to not just build a network but you have to maintain your network as well. It’s called relationship maintenance, that’s what I’ve kind of coined it as.  …Business is about vision and relationships at the very top level. You’ve got to have vision, but if you don’t have the relationships in place it’s going to be a lot harder and take a lot longer to make that vision a reality. And that means getting outside your comfort zone, networking outside of what’s comfortable to you. You need to put yourself in a position where you’re going to meet new people, and you have to be strategic about it.

TM: Be eager to continue to learn lots of different things. When you start out, it’s helpful to be an expert in some area so that you’re the go-to person for that area of expertise. Raise your hand and volunteer within your organization as well as outside of your organization. Try to think of how you can add value, whether it’s to a project or a team or to your boss, so that you become increasingly valuable and promotable. And sometimes you have to take the path you didn’t anticipate to see really great opportunities. You always scan the horizon to find things that are a really good match for your personality and your skill set.

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