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KIM Jae-Won

Female CEOs Should Not be a Novelty

KIM Jae-Won

Apr. 4, 2012

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Recent appointments of women CEOs at global companies such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM continue to defy outdated attitudes toward female executives and inspire women in the private sector. But despite actively hiring women, there is little doubt that many firms maintain a glass ceiling on their promotions.

Even in the US, female executives are under represented more than 40 years after "women's liberation" opened corporate doors. Only 14.1% of women at Fortune 500 US companies are on the executive board and a mere 3.6% are CEOs.

In Korea, the importance of women executives has become a recent hot issue at large companies, but there has been little progress. The latest available data shows that at the end of 2010, women accounted for only 17% of the managers at Korean companies with more than 1,000 employees and 6.2% of their board of directors. Among the top 100 companies, it is an even more dismal ? a paltry 1%.

Of the total number of CEOs in the Fortune 500, the number of women CEOs increased six-fold to 18 from 2000 to 2012. Fourteen of the 18 defied the odds of in-house competition to attain their title. Furthermore, these women did not only succeed in traditionally "woman-friendly" industries such as cosmetics, food or clothing. They represented a vast array of industries including IT, chemical, energy, pharmaceuticals, finance, and media.

The ingredients to their ascent were individual traits, job experience and corporate culture. As individuals, as well as having of all the traditionally "male traits" of high aspiration, strong drive and a sense of challenge, women CEOs show their leadership through consideration and involvement instead of pure top-down management. Case in point is Pepsi's CEO Indra Nooyi, who has harmonized her leadership with passion, determination and creativity.

In addition, the majority of women CEOs have accumulated experience in various key positions including chief operating officer and chief financial officer. Before she became CEO at Xerox, Ursuala Burns was a vice president who circulated through the various operational divisions in order to familiarize herself with the core functions of the company.

Finally, the global companies that have women CEOs are highly gender diverse and have implemented systems and provide support to foster women executives. Among the Fortune 500 companies with female CEOs, 18-36% of their executives were women compared to the average of 14.1%. Also, these companies have a gender diversity index and provide systematic career development that includes mentors, and place the utmost importance on work-life balance.

For women to become CEOs of Korean companies, the pool of potential executives must first be deepened. It has not been long since Korea started to officially make efforts to cultivate the female workforce. The percentage of employed university-educated females still occupies the bottom tier among OECD nations. Therefore it is natural that there is a significant lack of women candidates.

To raise the number of women candidates for managerial positions, Korean companies should follow in the footsteps of advanced global companies, setting a percentage target for their female workforce. Also, in order to strengthen job specialization and develop leadership capabilities, women should be given important and challenging tasks. Finally, as in advanced countries, gender diversity policies and progress must be managed in order to create an environment in which there is a high awareness of gender diversity issues. Although there are many women's groups in Korea, the monitoring of female business executives remains weak.

Korean women are now surpassing their male counterparts in academics and employment and their high aspirations and achievements in an array of areas have gained considerable attention. They have risen to high positions in the government, which has maintained a strong commitment to gender equality. If there are systems and a culture in place that respects gender diversity and supports such changes, many women CEOs can be seen in Korea, not just global firms.

This column originally appeared in Korea JoongAng Daily.
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