The Star Tribune’s Gail Rosenblum used a recent column to celebrate the appointment of six women to lead Minnesota colleges. But Minnesota’s corporate landscape has been less hospitable to women who want to serve in top leadership positions.

At Minnesota’s 100 largest publicly traded companies, women hold only 18.6 percent of the senior executive roles, according to the 2013 Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership released in March.

The study, done by St. Catherine University, shows painstakingly slow progress. Six years ago, women held 15.5 percent of the executive officer positions, so they’ve increased their leadership ranks by less than 1 percentage point a year.

The results are even worse for women board directors. The census revealed that women held 14.2 percent of the board director positions in 2008, and they were at 14.9 percent by 2013 — essentially flatlining.

Why should anybody care about these statistics? There are sound business reasons for hiring more women to lead major corporations from the C-suite. The business case also applies to appointing women to boards of directors.

McKinsey & Co. and Credit Suisse research has shown that a better mix of men and women in leadership positions yields better-performing companies. It also produces improvements in corporate governance, greater understanding of consumer needs and the benefit of access to a wider talent pool.

At the Economic Club of Minnesota luncheon on May 15, key business leaders saw a highly skilled CEO in action. Patricia Woertz, of Archer Daniels Midland, talked about the growing global middle class and deftly handled pointed questions from Steve Sanger, former General Mills chief executive. Woertz, 61, who became ADM’s top executive in 2006, launched her career with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

She’s a member of an exceedingly small club — one of 23 women (4.6 percent) who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Yet she was part of a large influx of women who enrolled in college in the 1970s. Between 1975 and 1980, U.S. women surpassed men in undergraduate college enrollment, and they’ve never surrendered that advantage.

So there are plenty of qualified women in the pipeline who’ve earned degrees and built their careers in the for-profit world. But large numbers of talented women aren’t making it to the top of corporations, because their promotions are being blocked, they are settling for middle-management roles or they are simply opting out of corporate life.

To increase the number of women in corporate leadership, multiple solutions and strategies are needed:

• Executive sponsorships: Mentors have provided professional women with guidance and feedback, but a recent McKinsey report says more is needed to substantially boost the numbers of women in top leadership. Sponsorship is a newer concept, in which an existing male or female executive can actively sponsor a talented woman within a company. “Real sponsors can actively drive advancement through concrete actions: They can open doors, recommend women for promotions and propose existing opportunities at the top,” a recent McKinsey study said.

• Women stepping forward for board service: At an April luncheon at the Minneapolis Club, businesswomen from across the Twin Cities came to hear Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, author of the book, “The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors.” The author offered practical advice to women about building their business credentials, increasing their visibility and making the connections they need to secure open board seats. Andrew Duff, chairman and CEO of Piper Jaffray, talked about the business value of women serving on boards. The event, sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Corporate Directors, served as a networking opportunity for women to build momentum for women’s appointments to boards.

• Corporate culture changes: Research shows that corporate cultures often stymie the ability of women to rise to top leadership positions. Some women’s collaborative leadership styles may be undervalued in corporations. In addition, the cultures of some corporations make it difficult for women to simultaneously be senior corporate executives and parents of young or school-age children.

While it’s in the self-interest of businesses to bring greater numbers of women into corporate leadership, changing the status quo is difficult. Two constituency groups are well-positioned to hold corporations accountable. If corporations are slow to act on gender diversity in company leadership, consumers and shareholders hold the power to speak out and demand better results.


Liz Fedor is a former Star Tribune business journalist and an editor at Twin Cities Business magazine.