October 2009 cover SCAN St. Catherine University
October 2009
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St. Kate’s Q & A
Minding Our Business


Rebecca Hawthorne

Rebecca Hawthorne, director of the MAOL, has helped bring national research to Minnesota that shows a profound lack of women on the boards and in the executive suites of the state’s largest companies.

The highest, hardest glass ceiling in the United States may not be the one in the White House.

National research shows that women executives are vastly underrepresented in the boardrooms and executive offices of corporate America. Recently, two St. Catherine University professors brought that research home with The Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership, an annual statewide study, now in its second year, of the 100 largest publicly traded companies in Minnesota.

Their findings: Women hold only 14 percent of the available board seats; 19 percent of Minnesota’s largest public companies have no senior women executive officers or corporate directors; and 41 percent have only one woman director.

Research shows this is not enough to change the culture or shape the perspective of the state’s largest companies. Rebecca Hawthorne, director of the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) program at St. Kate’s, is a co-researcher on the Minnesota Census study. She says the “glacial” pace of change in corporate boardrooms and executive suites can’t simply be attributed to sexism.

Men hold corporate director positions twice as long as women do in Minnesota companies, according to the study. The tough economic climate means some executive positions are being left open, and the men who run most of America’s largest businesses need to be educated about the importance of including diverse perspectives when the time comes to fill those positions, says Hawthorne, who holds a Ph.D. in program design and evaluation from Stanford University.

The InterOrganization Network (ION), the umbrella organization for the national research, consists of 14 networks around the country — in Boston, New York, Chicago and elsewhere — that work to advance women to positions of power and influence in the business world. After St. Catherine and numerous collaborators (see “Working Together,” at right) released the first Minnesota Census in March 2009, Minnesota is now represented in ION under the auspices of the Minnesota Women’s Economic Roundtable.

“We need a CEO who says: ‘This organization places a value on diversity. And it doesn’t end with one woman.’”

—Rebecca Hawthorne, director, Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership

What was the biggest surprise for you and Assistant Professor of Economics Joann Bangs when the two of you researched the 2008 Minnesota Census?

Even though Minnesota looks pretty good compared with other parts of the country, most of our largest public companies have one woman director or one woman corporate officer. We can say that women are well represented across Minnesota’s largest companies, but, in actuality, most have only one woman at the highest levels. The research on women in corporate leadership shows that you need critical mass to shift the leadership model or paradigm.

Why, in 2009, are we still seeing the token woman?

Research is starting to identify so many different reasons — everything from gender bias to linguistic research that points to the inflection in women’s voices, which men perceive as more emotional, more tentative, less forceful.

And there’s the traditional profile of board of directors candidates. Companies generally are looking for sitting or retired CEOs. The number of women who fit that profile is very small.

So, where should companies look for women to be members of their boards?

National research shows that we have strong women candidates for board positions who are entrepreneurs, executive directors of nonprofits and presidents of universities. Women have developed that executive skill set in many venues, as well as in corporate America as executive officers, whether in marketing, traditional human resources work or operational work. There are many more qualified women than just the few who are sitting or retired CEOs.
We need to broaden the criteria.

If women don’t have the traditional corporate experience, couldn’t that be interpreted as lowering the standards?

It’s redefining the profile. People of different expertise have different contributions to bring to the leadership team.

So, the goal of the Minnesota Census is to influence the broader makeup of corporate boards.

Building a board is often directed by the CEO and controlled by the nominating committee. The homogenous profile of so many corporate boards in Minnesota is striking. They’re dominated by white, male, retired CEOs in their 60s and 70s. It’s that issue of perpetuating yourself. We need a CEO who says: “This organization places a value on diversity. And our commitment doesn’t end with one woman.”

Family responsibilities often force women, more than men, to be in and out of the workforce. What influence does that have on women’s leadership roles in corporate America?

Some research focuses on the fact that the biological piece — that women do the childbearing — shapes careers. Women step out. They’re more concerned with work-life balance. Now, business schools and law schools are graduating a higher percentage of women than men. The assumption is that we’re going to see more women in leadership roles in companies and law firms. When we talk about altering the frame of reference for placing women on boards and in executive offices, demographics could be on our side.

Your own career has included leadership roles on nonprofit boards and at your church. Do women still struggle with having the business world see such work as valid?

My leadership is from the inside out, and it complements my academic background and experience. I want us to alter the frame of reference to recognize the skill sets developed in alternative work environments, such as nonprofit and volunteer sectors. That opens options for women and for men. It’s good for all of us.

What changes did you and Joann see in this year’s Minnesota Census?

The biggest change is the shift in the sample. All told, we had nine companies move off and another nine companies move on the list of the state’s largest public companies. Last year all of our Fortune 500 companies had women directors and women executive officers. When you shift the sample, you shift
the findings. That’s the biggest change.

Similarly, there are fewer women executives overall. The drop is from 16 percent to 15 percent. It’s not huge, but it is a full percentage point. We have to be careful with this statistic, however, because we know more positions remain vacant due to the recession.

We also went from 16 to 19 companies that have no women directors and no women corporate officers. We call those the “zero-zero” companies, and, while it’s the most annoying statistic, we’re attributing it mainly to the sample shift. The corporate director picture this year looks very much the same, which we’d expect, given the lengthy tenure of most directors on corporate boards.

Although the picture looks a bit bleaker this year, you seem cautious about how the data are interpreted. It’s tempting to jump to conclusions. To avoid that, we’ve chosen to focus on percentages. If a company decreased the number of board positions, the percentage of women on its board could increase or decrease. So the interpretation of the numbers could go in multiple directions.

How do you make this data relevant for companies then?

This research is a snapshot as of June 30, 2009, when these companies filed data with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for fiscal year 2010. A board could have appointed two women since then, although boards tend to be fairly stable.

But with executive officers, we’re being careful about how we present any kind of change. A company could have three open slots, especially during this economy, and we don’t count those spots. It’s not that companies are not hiring women; they have fewer positions.

How does your work on the Minnesota Census serve the MAOL and St. Catherine?

It heightens the visibility of our focus and expertise in leadership, especially women’s leadership. That’s what we want to be known for. The MAOL is about teaching and researching leadership; the program is based on both theory and practice. As faculty, we need to practice what we teach.

How do you teach leadership?

You begin by helping individuals understand who they are, what their value systems are and how they act on those values. Then you help them understand their role in organizational life, both as a leader and a follower — because leadership occurs at all levels. And then you build their skill set.



Working Together

Linda Hall Keller and Paula Meyer, who are members of the Minnesota chapter of Women Corporate Directors (WCD), led development of the first Minnesota Census: Women in Corporate Leadership for fiscal year 2008.

They chose St. Catherine University as their academic partner and engaged with other collaborators as well, including:

  • SpencerStuart, a global executive search firm that was a major sponsor of the report;
  • KPMG, Minneapolis;
  • LaBreche, a Minneapolis-based
    advertising and design firm;
  • Padilla Speer Beardsley, a public relations consulting firm; and
  • National Association of Corporate Directors, Minnesota chapter.

Women Corporate Directors consists of 35 women in Minnesota and 450 nationwide who currently serve on corporate boards. To access this network, e-mail wcdmsp@gmail.com.


For more information

The findings of the 2009 Minnesota Census will be unveiled on Thursday, February 9, 2010, at a luncheon sponsored by the St. Catherine Forum on Women in Leadership. Registration information »