A panel comprised of some of the world’s most prominent female leaders in the world of business convened at the Women in the World Summit on Thursday, each offering differing takes on how best to help women break through the corporate glass ceiling.
Noting that only five percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, moderator and MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle began the discussion by asking Sallie Krawcheck, a former president of Merrill Lynch’s wealth management unit and CEO of Citibank’s Wealth Management Business, why more women hadn’t risen to prominence in the investment world after leadership shake-ups caused by the 2008 financial crisis.
“Think about all those big trading floors, all those white middle aged guys,” replied Krawcheck. “The research is clear that homogeneous teams tend to over-trust each other, and that is clearly what happened going into the financial crisis. You would think coming out of the financial crisis we would have seen more diversity come into Wall Street, but Wall Street’s gone backwards. It went into the downturn white, male, and middle-aged — it’s come out whiter, maler, and middle-aged-er.”
Krawcheck, who now serves as CEO of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women, said that the problem behind Wall Street’s homogenous culture was not deliberate sexism but rather a matter of “comfort level.” Executives, she said, prefer to promote people who remind them of themselves. This preference, she claimed, led many in the business world to ignore research that found diverse teams regularly outperformed homogeneous ones — regardless of which group had more talented people in it.
In addition to producing a difficult culture for women to advance in, Krawcheck said the “for male, by male” investment industry tended “to disserve vast swathes of women,” resulting in “a gender investing gap … that can cost women hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars over the course of their lives.”
Arianna Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Post and Thrive Global, observed that virtually all industries had been shaped, and dominated, by men. “We need to actually change workplaces,” said Huffington. “They were designed by men, and they’re not working for women or for men.”
“And they’re not working for polar bears,” she added, eliciting a laugh from the crowd. “They’re not sustainable — they’re fueled by burnout and stress … men built workplaces based on the false science that in order to succeed, to achieve, to get to the top, you have to burn out in the process. And all the science proves otherwise. That creates a kind of macho culture of exhausted, burned out men acting out.”
In order to break the corporate glass ceiling, she suggested, it would also be necessary to change workplace culture so that it was more flexible — a consideration especially important to women who want to become mothers without having to sacrifice their jobs.
Miki Tsusaka, a Senior Partner and Managing Director at Boston Consulting Group, said that women working in Japan were essentially required to wear high heels and skirts, and that entering into the older, almost entirely male ranks of leadership was the equivalent of breaking “a thicker bamboo ceiling.” On top of that, she added, Japanese women were still expected by men to be responsible for practically all housework — whether they worked a job or not.
The bright side, Tsusaka said, was that the lack of women in leadership positions wasn’t reflective of “a capability issue,” but rather a systemic preference for men created by the working environment.
“It’s not about the lack of ambition. We’re equally ambitious as men,” said Tsusaka. “It’s the context, the surroundings.”
Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, added that breaking into leadership positions would continue to prove difficult for women without help from those already in positions of power — a point on which the rest of the panel concurred.
“We need our male leaders to embrace and support women across the board,” said Wojcicki. “Power is transferred by those that have it. It has to come from the top.”
Additional reporting by Kristyn Martin.