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Initiative is shattering the glass-half-empty past of gender diversity at the top of KC companies
It’s been decades since the “glass ceiling” held the national and political spotlight. In the interim, working women have continued to ascend to high roles in private and public companies. Ask the average young woman today if she feels held back by the glass ceiling, and there is a good chance she will say she has never heard of it.
Nonetheless, research suggests that gender diversity at the top of companies—both in Kansas City and across the nation—is considerably lower than the team at the Central Exchange would hope to see.
In 2010, Central Exchange launched Win|Win as a form of mitigation for the dismal numbers of women in executive suites and on boards of directors in Kansas City. The goal of the initiative was to boost gender diversity in top positions to 20 percent by 2015, and the initiative was backed by a who’s who of Kansas City business advocates, including the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, Kansas City Area Development Council, Kauffman Foundation and UMKC-The Bloch School.
“Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of research saying that the most powerful leadership teams are those that include men and women working together,” says Ellen D’Amato, president and CEO of Central Exchange. “When we looked at what kind of gender diversity we had on the leadership teams in Kansas City, we frankly found that there was very little.”
Central Exchange’s research indicated that as few as 7 percent of Kansas City’s executive teams and boards of directors were female—an especially alarming number in light of a 2012 McKinsey & Company report of 180 publicly traded companies that shows companies with more diverse top teams also are top financial performers.
“Businesses tend to hide behind what I call ‘the barrier,’ which is saying there aren’t enough qualified women,” says Nancy Mellard, executive vice president and general counsel for CBIZ Employee Services Division and Steering Committee Chair for Win|Win. “Instead of me using the word qualified, I want to say that they’re talented, and they are there. You don’t hear that there aren’t enough qualified men.”
In the two years since Win|Win’s launch, Mellard has leveraged her personal experience and passion for gender diversity to close the gap at the top. Upon joining the initiative, Mellard had already built a women’s program for CBIZ and its divisions to boost women’s leadership internally. Plus, she had felt the sting of a non-diverse board room on a personal level as the only female on a 40-member board of directors for the Counsel of Insurance Agents and Brokers. Now, she works with women in a variety of capacities to ensure their path to the top is possible.
The results are beginning to pay off. A number of Kansas City’s marquee companies, including H&R Block, Saint Luke’s Health Systems, Black and Veatch, the KC Star, KCP&L and Husch Blackwell, among others, have added more women to their leadership teams. Kansas City Mayor Sly James has signed on as a supporter, and the Kansas City, Missouri City Council passed a resolution endorsing the initiative for the city.
Win|Win tackles diversity disparity from a number of avenues, including CEO roundtables with speakers presenting a strong business case for further gender integration, connections to seminars and mentors for women’s professional development and managing a database of women with the credentials and drive needed to be considered for a board of directors or C-level position.
In October, Win|Win completed a survey to note their progress in the metro. While progress has been consistent and strong, Mellard knows the numbers are not where they need to be.
“We don’t have sole ownership on where these numbers are or where they are going,” Mellard says. “We just want to positively influence them. We want to accept them as a challenge.”