What Do Our Professional Organizations Do?

A few weeks ago I had the occasion to speak to a man to whom I used to report.  He had read one of my essays and sent me a note and we used the occasion to schedule a catch-up call.  He had always been one of my very favorite people; he was smart and savvy about business while at the same time he was well read and knowing, quick to acknowledge that life was complex and about much more than the bottom line.  Moreover, he was the shining example of gender blind management.  He hired, promoted and critiqued his male and female direct reports with equally exacting standards.

It was sheer delight to speak with him! Our conversation bounced from memory lane to the state of the industry today – his stature and influence in the industry has continued to grow – and I got ready close our call by telling him that when we next spoke I wanted to talk to him about the lack of women in leadership positions in our industry when they represent the large majority of the workforce.   He paused, said of course we could talk about that, but in the meantime was I aware of the industry group “Women in ________?”

My shoulders sagged.  “Yes, I was aware of ‘Women in ________.’  I was a member.  I’ve been a speaker at some of their local meetings.  But quite frankly, I’ve been a member of every appropriate industry women’s group for the past 20 years and women are still under represented in the upper echelons of management.”  Surely this enlightened man did not believe that his support of an industry trade association would suffice to achieve workplace equality.

A quick search shows that there are approximately 192 women’s organizations in this country. NOT counting the ones that are specifically focused on racial identity (e.g., African-American Women’s organizations) or ethnic identity (e.g., Hispanic or Latino Women’s organizations); NOT counting those focused on specifically feminist organizations (e.g., Redstockings); NOT counting those focused on political advocacy (e.g., Emily’s List); NOT counting those focused on women’s sports; NOT counting the United Federation of Women’s Clubs; and NOT counting Miss America or Miss Universe clubs.

Those organizations that are targeted toward helping women achieve business success all talk about empowering and nurturing, recognizing excellence, promoting leadership, helping with career development, providing networking opportunities and professional fulfillment.  Some throw in education and public advocacy.

Yet a Korn Ferry 2016 analysis of the top 1,000 companies shows that women are making very little progress in penetrating the C-suite with one notable exception: women hold more than half of CHRO positions.

Korn Ferry Women in the C-Suite 2016

CEO                              5  %

CFO                             12

CIO                              19

CMO                            29

CHRO                          55

Total Mixed Rate               24  %


Women seeking seats on corporate boards don’t fare much better than women seeking the C-suite.   In early 2017 Catalyst reported that women hold 10.6 % – or a total of 6,081 board seats on Fortune 500 companies.  Currently 419 of the Fortune 500 have at least one female board director.

For the first time a Fortune 500 company has achieved gender parity on its board.  Golden West Financial, a savings institution in California, with Marion Sandler (female) as its Chief Executive, has led the way with five women and five men on the board.  Sandler said, “It takes time to change a board. You have to make it a priority.” And there lies the rub: few women are in the CEO seat and the male CEOs are not necessarily making it a priority.

How should women use their networks and professional associations to advance their careers?  How well do professional associations adjust their activities to reflect the changing needs of their constituents?  There was a time when many industries had few women and just getting in the door was a challenge.  Internal and external women’s groups provided support, reinforcement and a safe place to strategize the way forward.  Corporate internal women’s groups may still serve a similar function in that woman can share experiences, feel less isolated – particularly in male dominated companies or industries – and take action when necessary, feeling the strength of numbers.

However, in the many industries where women and men are equally represented in the more junior ranks yet women fail to rise into the senior ranks at the same rate, I would challenge the female-focused professional associations to look closely at their mission and their metrics for success.

I would argue that mission statements left over from another era like “personal and professional fulfillment,” “empowering and nurturing women,” or “providing education and networking opportunities” are not serving us.   What concerns me more is “recognizing excellence.”  I want my company to recognize my excellence and promote me.  I want the markets to recognize my excellence and raise the stock price. Now, I do know there is a place for awards and recognition in any industry but I want my professional organization to help me grow and help me learn to overcome the conscious and unconscious bias that exists in the workplace today; I’m skeptical of one more awards dinner during which a male CEO can honor the many contribution these outstanding women have made.

What do we want from our professional organizations?  The answer, of course depends, on what career stage any individual is in.  When I was junior, I joined market research organizations and newspaper and magazine organizations that were not focused on gender.  I wanted to learn more about my industry and I wanted to network.  I wanted the opportunity to build leadership skills by leading committees and task forces.

In the middle stage of my career I would have appreciated a focus on how women can learn to negotiate salaries better, balance the competing needs of work and family, maybe more on navigating office politics and I would have welcomed advice from women who had been there and conquered some business challenges.  But I wanted the focus to be on getting ahead not just feel good activities.

Now I’m focused on getting a board seat at a private or public company. I’m exploring professional organizations that offer training to executive woman seeking board seats.

But I am also at a stage in my career where it’s safe to make noise about the paucity of women at the top. Or bring to light the body of research that illustrates how women are promoted on accomplishment while men are promoted on potential.  I could go on.  It’s ok for me to call influential men and ask them how they’re thinking about gender parity.  I want my women’s organizations to be just as direct.


“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes… and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”– Eleanor Roosevelt


Join the discussion One Comment

  • Kristin Luck says:

    Appreciate you perspective on the role of associations and diversity. It’s a tough issue to address, no question about it, and we’ve spent the last few years at Women In Research (WIRe) evolving to better address the needs and issues of women in the workplace and drive meaningful change. This is no easy task….addressing the needs of women who are in all stages of their career lifecycle. To that end, we updated our mission and principles several years ago to reflect this evolution (http://www.womeninresearch.org/mission-and-principals/) and we have clear strategic, measureable objectives that we’re working toward with the support of our advisory board, research partners and volunteers. You’ll see the results of our initiatives in our annual report and as part of the research we’re conducting with Lieberman Research Worldwide, which will be presented at ESOMAR Congress in the Fall.

    Of equal importance is that we don’t have conversations about diversity in a vacuum. Women only talking to other women about diversity won’t get us anywhere. Men sit on our advisory board, they are welcome at all WIRe events, and we actively include them as speakers in our programming. I’m thankful for the support of leaders like Eric Salama, Ray Poynter, Andrew Reid, Lenny Murphy, Finn Raben and others who actively work to promote our programming and create opportunities for women in the industry.

    WIRe is also actively pushing forward female executives (specifically C-suite women and founders) through our WIRexec programming and retreat by combatting the “old boys network” with an “old girls network” (as much I loathe the use of the word “girls” when talking about women). I share your career objectives and was disheartened when I was told by a PE guy that “boards are all about who you know”….which puts women at a distinct disadvantage if most boards are filled with white males. Every board I currently sit on was due to a recommendation from a white man. I’m thankful for those recommendations and hope to pay it forward by recommending more women for the boards I sit on.

    Lastly, don’t be shy about calling me out. I’m pretty sure you’re referencing Women In Research in paragraphs 2 and 3 and if you feel there are gaps in our programming or that we’re not doing enough to affect change then I’m all ears. WIRe is a labor of love for me. It’s every spare hour I have. It’s nights and weekends and I’m fortunate to have an incredible group of volunteers and donors backing me. I’d love to have your help!