Professional Women Still Seek Equality Climbing the Corporate Ladder

February 10, 2017 – It has been decades since professional women have pushed into the higher echelons of corporate management. Yet the ultimate objective of full equality eludes many of them. While corporate boards – and the recruiters who represent them in the marketplace – have implemented diversification initiatives, the C-suite nevertheless remains largely the domain of white men.

Today, 24 women – just 4.8 percent – hold the chief executive title at Fortune 500 concerns. In the recruiting business, one lone woman sits atop the largest U.S. firms in an industry that should be leading its clients by example, not lagging them. Changes have been coming to elevate professional women to other senior level corporate positions and, in certain sectors and functions, more women serve at the C-level than at any previous time.

One is Eileen Whelley, chief human resources officer at XL Catlin, a global insurance and reinsurance company that employs 7,000 globally. Prior to joining XL, Ms. Whelley spent five years at the Hartford Financial Services Group as executive vice president of human resources. Earlier, she spent 17 years at GE where she held a number of leadership roles, including executive vice president of human resources at GE’s NBC Universal subsidiary.

In the following interview, Ms. Whelley discusses where women in business stand today and the role mentoring plays in her company’s efforts to help women advance. She also provides some important recommendations for companies, and women themselves, to increase advancement opportunities.


Eileen, more women today are working in a greater number of senior level positions. But just 24 of them hold the CEO post among the Fortune 500. What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s hard to pinpoint specific reasons why there are not more women CEOs or more women who hold other senior leadership roles in business. Much has been written on this topic by people more knowledgeable than me and we still don’t fully understand it. However, if you ask me what companies can do to increase the representation of women in leadership roles, I think there are a number of things they can do, including:

Relentlessly measure and hold managers accountable – Track hiring, promotions and terminations, hold leaders accountable for making progress on diversity goals, tie making good faith efforts to compensation /rewards and celebrate progress. This does not mean having quotas or compromising on hiring decisions, but it does require commitment from the top and a disciplined long term focus as we cannot move the needle overnight.

Create a culture that is inclusive and supports diversity – This requires communication, education and helping leaders expand their comfort zones to ensure that their actions and words signal an openness to all members of their teams, not just the people who are most like them. Other aspects of an inclusive culture include being clear about the behaviors that are valued and expected and working accountability for living those behaviors into your performance management system. At XL, we talk about doing what’s right, being accountable, making it better and collaborating, all of which contribute to having a more inclusive culture. A culture that supports D&I embraces flexibility as a way of working and a way of thinking. I believe that companies that operate in a flexible manner when it comes to getting work done and realizing career growth will attract and retain more than their fair share of diverse talent.

Proactively mentor, sponsor and develop women – This can include development programs specifically designed for women and education about what it means to be a sponsor — someone who is in a position to influence the placement or hiring into a senior role – and what it means to be a mentor – someone who provides advice or coaching based on what they know or expertise they have.

“We require that every slate is diverse … We started measuring progress against this goal last year and the mere fact that we are measuring it – and holding hiring managers accountable – has had a positive impact on our representation of women in leadership roles.”

In addition to what companies can do to increase the number of women in senior leadership roles, I would add two things that women can do to help themselves – they need to be comfortable talking about their achievements and taking credit when it is due rather than being modest, and they need to ask for the promotion when they see a job they want. Studies show that men do this more often and more readily than women, and my experience as an HR leader tells me that when all else is equal, the person who confidently advocates for themselves and asks for the job, gets the job.

With more women serving in senior level business roles today, can’t they help more as mentors?

Generally speaking, most of the senior women I know are supportive of more junior women and serve as official and unofficial mentors, coaches, role models and sponsors to them. When you are a leader, you have a responsibility to be fair and support the development of all members of your team. But because women leaders often have had to overcome workplace biases, or the challenges of juggling dual careers or children, they are in a unique position to help other women succeed. We can see our less experienced selves in those junior women and help them communicate more effectively, navigate the organization or act with greater confidence than perhaps we did. While this type of informal support is effective, it can be amplified and be even more powerful when companies have formal programs and initiatives that are designed to support the development and advancement of women.

As the CHRO of a large company, what measures have you undertaken to help women advance?

XL Catlin launched a broad diversity & inclusion (D&I) Strategy last year and the catalyst behind it was Mike McGavick, our CEO.  Mike has always been committed to diversity but he got a little more passionate about it after attending an insurance industry event for up-and-coming talent and was surprised by the lack of women in the room. After that event he called me and said we had to do something, and together we agreed that we would develop a broad D&I strategy with an initial focus on women. So last year we launched our strategy which is focused on building a culture of inclusion and strengthening our ability to attract, retain and advance women into leadership roles. Our initiatives to date include a new Women’s Executive Leadership Program for high potential women; introducing a workplace flexibility policy that is available to all colleagues; sponsoring an employee resource group called Women of the World in New York, Hartford, London and Gurgeon; enhancing our leave policies to be more ‘family friendly,’ which now provide up to 20 weeks of paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child in the U.S., and other enhanced paid time off benefits; and establishing metrics to track progress and ensure accountability.

When XL Catlin has to retain a search firm to fill a professional level role, do you direct them on gender?

When we work with search firms we insist on having a diverse slate of candidates. I think most search firms are already sensitive to this need but I suspect they go the extra mile for us because we are so clear that diversity is a priority. In fact, we require that every slate is diverse – meaning the hiring manager must interview at least one diverse candidate before an offer can be made. We started measuring progress against this goal last year and the mere fact that we are measuring it – and holding hiring managers accountable – has had a positive impact on our representation of women in leadership roles.

Contributed by Christopher W. Hunt, Publisher and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media — Hunt Scanlon Media

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