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Behind the Gender Gap

Women leaders have the insights and skills that retail and consumer goods companies need and their priorities and career goals align with those of tomorrow’s leaders — male and female. Why, then, have women fallen behind their male counterparts in pay and career advancement? The reasons are many and complex, and they start with conscious and unconscious bias embedded in today’s workplace.

A 2011 survey by McKinsey & Company revealed that “deeply entrenched beliefs within corporate culture” are causing the biggest resistance to advancing women to leadership roles. Women candidates are frequently judged differently from their male counterparts when opportunities for promotion arise, the study found. A woman may be seen as too passive or too aggressive, or even more vaguely, “not right for that position” based on long-held gender stereotypes. Male executives have even admitted to overlooking a woman simply because they “didn’t know how to talk to or mentor her.”

The old boys’ club continues to halt women in their tracks. Participants in Network of Executive Women (NEW) focus groups for the NEW 2020 research initiative said male leaders in the retail and consumer goods industry often devalue their contributions in meetings, disregard their requests for mentoring opportunities and are quick to take credit for women’s ideas in high-visibility arenas. Moreover, women said they are habitually excluded from informal networking opportunities, where influential decision-making takes place.

“I’m the only [female] V.P. in my company,” recounted one female industry leader. “When the men went on a retreat, they accidentally emailed photos while they were away, and I thought, ‘Oh, so this is what you do without me.’ It can be lonely to be the only woman.”

One problem: Too few women are advancing to roles that lead to the most senior positions. A 2011 Catalyst study found that while advancement within organizations is dependent on the receipt of projects that are “highly visible, mission-critical and international in scope,” significantly more men than women are chosen for these roles.

A 2013 report by the International Consortium for Executive Development Research backs up Catalyst’s findings. Women are not typically given the risk or stretch assignments required to broaden their experience to the levels expected for entry into the c-suite, according to “Taking Charge: A roadmap for a successful career and a meaningful life for high potential corporate women leaders.”

There is a stubborn assumption among many decision makers that women — especially mothers — won’t be interested in the line positions, special projects or traveling opportunities that would help propel their careers forward.

“[To] assume that I cannot take on a senior role and work beyond 5 p.m., well, I have a nanny, and, I can,” said one female executive in the report. “I will decide where I can and cannot be and how to prioritize. If I were a man, nobody would assume that I need to get home to feed my children.”

Signs of progress

Some organizations are making a determined effort to break down traditional hierarchies, change the way leaders are developed and promoted and create a new corporate culture that’s more inclusive, flexible and authentic.

Colgate-Palmolive Co., for example, has worked to put women into “stretch positions.” The company offers executives who cannot relocate permanently opportunities to take on short-and long-term assignments in the U.S. and abroad, allowing them to raise their profiles and broaden their skills.

And at Schwan’s Consumer Brands, leaders have made a concerted effort to move women out of support functions and into line roles. “Women tend to do more staff roles,” says Diane Cooke, vice president of strategy and compensation at Schwan’s. “The challenge is getting women to move into those line positions, getting them onto the track that would lead them to the CEO role. Whether it’s by choice that women are not taking risks, or that it’s corporate perception that women don’t want to take risks, I’m not sure.”

Change will not happen overnight, and not without a corporate-wide commitment to change. At Hallmark Cards, a three-pronged approach to diversity is taken: developing products that are relevant to a broad range of consumers, recruiting talent from many backgrounds and creating a work environment that makes the best use of each individual’s talents. Hallmark’s Diversity and Inclusion Council has developed initiatives that appeal to all employees, including several specifically focused on women. Its employee resource groups (ERGs) provide opportunities for employees to learn about different ethnicities, cultures, religions, generations and sexual orientations, while offering personal and professional mentoring and networking opportunities. The ERGs are a resource for Hallmark’s research, marketing and product development teams, providing cultural insights and understandings.

And, mindful that employees have multiple stressors at home and at work, Hallmark supports work-life balance and makes it a central part of the company’s recruitment, retention and employee satisfaction programs. The company offers flextime, job-sharing, part-time, telecommuting, remote working and other flexible work options where possible. It also provides up to six months of parental leave to new parents and financial support for adoption.

To support working mothers who are nursing, Hallmark provides private lactation rooms, electric breast pumps and refrigerators. To further help employees juggle work and home responsibilities, the company has established relationships with a number of local agencies to connect employees to childcare, eldercare, pet-sitting and other services and organizations.

“As a working mother of two boys, I know how critical it is to have flexibility in the workplace,” says Hallmark National Sales Director Sharon Belto. “Continuing a career would have been virtually impossible without it.”

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