As the topic of getting more women on boards gets hotter and hotter, it can deflect attention from the harder task of getting more women into the C-suite, which is often a prerequisite for being seen as "board ready."
Boards are strategically important but directors advise, they do not have operational responsibility. This crucial difference between executive and director roles makes a diverse range of board member profiles attractive, while our views about what it takes to be "CEO material" remain restricted.
When INSEAD colleagues Morten Hansen, Urs Peyer and I studied the leadership of 2,000 of the world's top performing companies, we found only 29 (1.5%) of those CEOs were women.. Only one woman, Meg Whitman, as former CEO of eBay, made it to the top 100 of our rankings. Even more telling, the few women CEOs on our global list were nearly twice as likely as men to have been appointed to the job from outside the company - even though our analysis clearly shows that inside-CEO candidates perform better over time. Women, we found, are less likely to emerge as winners in their own companies' internal CEO tournament.
Why? Research points to three hurdles.
First, women are less likely than men to have the line experience required to get the top job. A 2011 McKinsey report on women in the US economy showed that 62% of the senior women in the largest US corporations are in staff jobs that rarely lead to a CEO role (in contrast, 65% of the men on executive committees hold line jobs). For our World Economic Forum Corporate Gender Gap Report, (with Saadia Zahidi), we asked the top HR person in the largest companies of 20 OECD countries: "among the assignments that you consider to be business critical/important, what percentage, in our opinion, are currently held by women (e.g., key start ups, turnarounds and line roles in key business units of markets)?" The most common answers were "0-10%" or "not measured."
Second, women aren't getting sponsored into top roles. Our "Why men still get more promotions than women" 2010 Harvard Business review article explains how this occurs despite the plethora of formal mentoring programs. Using a sample of 4000+ MBA alumni from 25 top business schools worldwide (IIM Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Calcutta participated in the study) we found that having a mentor in 2008 predicted getting promoted in 2010, but only for men. Men's mentors are more likely than women's to be CEOs or senior executives and used their power to open doors for their mentees; women's mentors helped them to become more self-aware.
Third, women with stellar performance records can still be held back because they are not seen as "leaderly." When we analyzed the 360-degree leadership assessments of INSEAD executive education participants (over 2000 executives and the 20,000 associates who rated them), we found many surprises. First, our executive women know just how competent they are - they were not too modest, rating themselves higher on most leadership competencies than their male peers. Second, contrary to what everyone expected, the women's observers - both male and female-also rated them higher than the men on these competencies. But, there was one big exception to this rosy picture: the women were rated less "visionary" than the men and suffered for it when appointments to high stakes positions got made.
The upshot is that women still aren't treated as equals to men. But the times are changing. Recently I sat on the Fortune/AON Hewitt jury that determines the bi-annual list of "best companies for leaders," a short list in which Indian companies were well-represented for their cutting edge HR practices. Companies with 0% women on their executive committees, the panelists argued, could not possibly be top companies for leaders no matter what best practices they had on the books.
How to move the needle? On this the research cited here is very clear: Give women stretch assignments in areas of direct impact on the bottom line, engineer your mentoring programs so that they get women into these strategic roles, and take a hard look at your performance management and succession planning processes for any evidence of subtle gender bias in what makes a leader. You'll be amazed at the change these three moves can make.
The author is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD business school