More and more women are becoming part of the companies’ board, even though few of them have the role of CEO. This means that gender gap in management is still present and evident and needs to be filled. In recent years, the debate on gender equality and the measures for its promotions, have been focusing on the effects of the introduction of mandatory quotas which have been effective in terms of the increasing presence of women in boards, but at the same time, they introduced a more formal rather than a substantial gender balance. A real change will only take place if it is part of the companies’ culture in order to encourage the development of an organizational model that pushes towards women’s involvement, both in corporate governance and leadership.

I have deeply discussed about the topic with Penny Herscher, board director of a technology public company, executive and entrepreneur. She is an extraordinary woman, capable of breaking the so-called glass ceiling, the invisible barriers that prevent women from reaching upper-level positions, despite their skills and academic background. With more than twenty years of experience as a high-tech CEO and company boards’ director in the Silicon Valley, Penny Herscher is currently a speaker on leadership, director training, and career growth who transmits her competence especially to women entrepreneurs.

California is forcing a change through the enactment of the law SB 826 to set a minimum number of women on boards, while in Europe this type of acts has been in force for years. Have you found some differences between the companies you worked for in the USA and the ones in Europe regarding the mindset of having more women serving on corporate boards? “The law can be used to force change. In France, legislation guarantees at least 40% of women on boards of directors. When I became member of the board of a French company, a US director had the nerve to tell me that these laws lead only to weaker boards of directors due to the presence of unqualified female directors. He stunned me with this claim, that diversity reduces quality in boards, and I think it is only a prejudice lacking of scientific basis, because the women I served on in France board with were fantastic, highly qualified and had been absolutely valued objectively for their role. However, studies in France have found that the number of women in the boards is still low, and they are trying to find a solution by making them more ready and prepared to carry out such roles.

In California, there is a strong push to bring more women to the boards of directors, following the example of Europe. Since California is a much more liberal environment, there is not so much resistance to change. However, in other States, the situation is different. For example, in New York the boards of directors are often old school oriented: directors do not think that diversity is important in corporate governance and find no reason to involve women in leadership process. It is for sure a frustrating situation. It seems like there are two different Americas: California and the other States”.

Do you think women feel able to climb the corporate ladder, or do they feel behind other men? “In my opinion, the lack of women in managerial roles is more complicated than that. I personally believe there is some reluctance to promote women by the generation of older men, especially the over-fifties. They usually ask themselves: will she have children? Will she have enough time to work and to throw herself to the company? 

Certainly, all invalid reasons not to promote women. There is also another important phenomenon: women ask for a promotion within the company later than men, because they usually wait until they are over-qualified to put themselves up for a promotion. The consequence is that men tend to be qualified for a promotion before their female colleagues. For this reason, a great part of my coaching over the last twenty years, has been spent and dedicated to women, encouraging them to take the first step and putting themselves up to a promotion. For example, there is a woman who is now CEO of a company, who I met ten years ago as Product Director. She was afraid to ask for a promotion and a salary increase. In this case, my coaching with her was all about removing the fear, making her understand that, even if they had fired her, she would still have found a better job elsewhere given her skills. By the time she stopped being afraid, her career has grown tremendously since then”.

Do you think that in the companies where you work, especially those in technology, there is a significant number of women at all managerial levels? “In my whole career I have never worked in a company where women were in charge. For many years I was the only woman on the boards I served on. Maybe that is the reason why, when I became CEO, I worked hard to bring more women into my company. Unfortunately, in the technological field I found out that it is difficult to find women, especially on the boards of directors where they are still very few. But still, I could find them. Recently, in a company I manage, we had a job open-up to hire a woman in the management field. The recruiting team took three months longer than expected, even if the search ended up benign successful anyway. However, because of the time that the search requires, most of the companies I know do not even try to make an attempt in finding women for their leadership roles. In addition, a statistical study shows that 50% of women leave companies in the technological field within ten years of graduation. The reason to that is hostile working environment with not enough support for a woman’s life, maternity leave or childcare. Therefore, at the end they prefer to leave technology companies for other industries that are more supportive to women. This represents a big issue for companies working in the field of technology, energy, and automotive industry. The digital revolution can create more work and more possibilities for women and enhance women’s empowerment. A great challenge is how to exploit technological changes to further enhance gender equity. On the other hand, the scarcity of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) educational disciplines is considered a crucial dimension of current gender gaps. There is an urgent need to fill this gap, as these disciplines open better opportunities and provide access to higher leadership careers and empowerment”. 

You can do anything you want

Penny Harscher

What do you think about the implementation of AI for finding the best candidate to fill a managerial position with no bias of gender?  “You must be careful when using artificial intelligence or relying on technology in general, especially if the algorithm that regulates the choices is not well placed. In fact, it happened that in a selection for a job in a well-known company, the recruiters noticed that they were interviewing many men and very few women. Then, they discovered that the algorithm they were using to filter the various cv available had chosen candidates based on an incorrect condition that automatically excluded girls, despite having a better educational qualification than male candidates, since they did not possess the knowledge of a particular software that their course of study did not provide in the first place. The problem was overcome by the company by hiring the female candidates excluded by the algorithm, thus making preparation courses, and teaching them the software required. Furthermore, if the algorithm is written by men who did not change their mentality, it is very unlikely that women will improve their position in the company.

Do you think that there are other innovative solutions for companies to achieve a better gender diversity on corporate boards? “When it comes to hiring on a board of directors, a more complex procedure is used rather than for employees, where there is a greater number of potential candidates. For the latter, the cv are analyzed without their names and surnames appearing, so as to neutralize as much as possible the recruitment. For the board of directors, hiring is a rare event, where certain candidates’ specific requirements must be taken into account in order to find the best fit for your board: experience in the sector in which the company operates, be in line with values and the ideals of the company, being collaborative and participative. But it is important that companies explicitly express their will to hire a woman, because unless a search targets a diverse candidate, the probability is the next hire will likely be a white male who is known to the board. The governance committee needs to be clear and open with the whole board about the specification, the process and the recruiter. Only in this way it will be possible to change the composition of a board of directors, where only one woman is still not enough. The change will also happen when there will be a switch to younger people in the leadership of a company, who better understand the added value brought by women on boards, keeping up with a society that is evolving faster and faster”.

Based on your personal experience, what do you suggest to young women who want to pursue a career in the management field, especially in a competitive environment like the Silicon Valley? “One thing that I always repeat when I find myself talking to young women is to stop being afraid, judged, or fired, not to listen to people who try to bring them down. Women must be brave and aggressive at the same time, because otherwise they will find people ready to take their place. If you have to play in a world that is still of men, you have to know how to compete with them, even if sometimes it means competing like a man. Finally, I would tell them this: do not believe when people say that what you want to accomplish cannot be done. You can do anything you want to do”.

Interview curated by Camilla Marzullo