Statewide report shows few women leading Michigan corporations--By Carol Cain

This story was published in the Detroit Free Press on Feb. 3, 2024

When it comes to women ascending to top jobs of major companies across Michigan, the jury is out as to how much progress has been made the past two decades.

Inforum, the statewide business organization, just released its latest Michigan Women's Leadership Report, which it issues every two years with an assist from the Mike Ilitch School of Business at Wayne State University. It has done so the past 20 years.

In it, Inforum examines information from the largest publicly traded companies in Michigan to get a gauge of how far women in the workplace have progressed. Of the 83 companies examined, six were led by female CEOs in 2023, which was up from just two 20 years ago.

Progress, to be sure. But c’mon. Six out of 83? Women make up over half of the workforce but just six hold the top jobs at Michigan's largest publicly traded companies today? By the way, the firms with a female CEO are General Motors, La-Z-Boy, MillerKnoll, Steelcase, Jackson Financial and Amesite.

Having a female CEO appears to bode well for board representation, too, as those firms had a board makeup that was at least 40% women, Terry Barclay, president and CEO of Inforum, told me.

In the latest report, women held 26% of all director seats at Michigan public companies (though women of color only held a disappointing 4% of those seats). Twenty years ago in its inaugural report, Inforum found 9.6% of all board seats at Michigan’s public companies were held by women.

The Inforum report found another disconcerting trend: The pace of firms selecting women for top jobs along the way slowed in 2023, i.e. just 28 new women directors named versus 47 in 2021.

“We're wondering if we're seeing a slowing of the addition of women,” Barclay said.

I posed a few questions to Barclay, who has been at the helm of the organization since 2001. Answers are edited for space and clarity.

Question: What’s the headline from your latest survey?

Answer: We titled our report, “Is Diversity Peaking?” We don’t have a definitive answer for that question but there is some evidence that corporate focus on gender and racial diversity may be being superseded by other priorities, including the economy and geopolitical risks.

Q: What surprised you most out of the data?

A: It’s not specific to this report but when we published the first report 20 years ago, we thought we would be closer to parity at senior executive levels than we are today. Even so, we see many, many companies with strategic efforts to leverage the entire talent pool.

Q: Mary Barra has led GM through challenging and interesting times. The company’s UAW members are no doubt applauding as it was announced they will get profit-sharing bonuses up to $12,500. You’ve watched her in action (she appeared at Inforum’s 50th anniversary event in 2012 before she was named CEO). Your thoughts about her leadership?

A: Mary is a trailblazing CEO for women who has demonstrated over time that being a successful CEO is tied to expertise, acumen and leadership skills that can be developed by men or women. She’s an enormously talented and strategic person who would have been successful in multiple industries. But as we think about her career, we remember that she had male allies at pivotal points in her career, as rising men typically do and women often don’t, who helped her rise within the company. If that hadn’t happened, her leadership could have been lost.

Q: Are women at a place you might have thought they’d be 20 years ago?

A: The outlook is brighter for women than it was two decades ago but there is still ground to be gained, especially for women of color.

Of course, I had hoped that we would be closer to parity in senior corporate management than we are today but I am encouraged on a day-to-day basis by the efforts of the 120-plus companies we work with that support our vision of a culture that embraces women — as well as men — leading and succeeding.

Q: Anything else to mention?

A: Focusing on numbers is an objective way to measure progress but it, too often, is interpreted as pressure to hit a number for a number’s sake. Our mission is centered around helping women to lead and succeed. But our philosophy always has been that companies create the conditions to be more successful when they consider the entire talent pool. That’s why our work encompasses strategic networks and learning for individual women and customized leadership development programming that can be deployed throughout companies.

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