August 10, 2013 – Judith M. von Seldeneck is founder, chairman and CEO of Diversified Search, headquartered in Philadelphia. Ms. von Seldeneck has been a pioneer in the search industry for 35 years and a leader in placing qualified women and diversity candidates. She has received numerous industry awards and has been active on a number of corporate boards including Citizens Financial Group and she was recently named to the Comcast and NBC Universal Joint Diversity Council. Ms. von Seldeneck was one of two founders of the Forum of Executive Women 30 years ago which is now the largest association of women business leaders in the Philadelphia area. Prior to founding Diversified Search, she was executive assistant to U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale. This interview is an excerpt from HSZ Media’s upcoming Executive Search 2013: State of the Industry Report.
ESR: In The Wall Street Journal recently you were quoted as saying that company boards are under increasing pressure to hire “more high potential women who could be CEO.” Yet among the Fortune 1,000 only 35 are women, 3.5 percent.
von Seldeneck: It won’t be while I’m alive because, at this same rate, you are talking another 70 years. And this isn’t going to change any time soon unfortunately. If you had told me 35 years ago that we were going to be looking at these kinds of numbers I’d have said you are out of your mind; no way. So I think this has really been a big shock to everybody; and everybody’s trying to figure out what can be done to try to gain some ground here. You read articles and you hear people talking and listening to all these panels about how women have got to start beating the drums again, and get more aggressive and get out there and march and stir things up again. But I don’t think that’s going to work.
ESR: I read recently that 11.2 percent of today’s corporate officers and 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies have at least one woman officer in their ranks. How do you view this data?
von Seldeneck: As with the board issue I think it’s terrible. I really find those figures very discouraging; and I think that speaks to the whole issue. When I started my firm in the 1970s two percent of executives were female. Now, today, something like 52 percent of middle management are women. So, obviously there have been some great strides but there is still an awfully long way to go. Unfortunately in the past three years I think that things have started to slack off a little bit. I’m not sure what the reason is for that but it is troubling.
ESR: What advantages did you have as a female search consultant at that time and in working with female clients? What were the disadvantages, if any?
von Seldeneck: The obvious advantage was being a woman. My ability to relate to other women and identifying what was happening to them was a huge leg up. I was able to understand the challenges they were facing because they were just like the ones that I was facing. But there was a big disadvantage, too. If we look at the environment 35 years ago it was very clear to me and other women in business that men were not fully receptive to seeing a woman advance. That also included entrepreneurs, like me, who were trying to start businesses. But I tried to take a positive tack and use it to my advantage and that was to be able to work effectively with women executives because I understood their challenges and would then work with my male counterparts on the client side, who really controlled the purse strings by the way, in getting them to be comfortable and willing to work with a woman search consultant as well as looking at candidates who were also women. It was a real challenge because many men were unbending so it took a long time to chip away at that.
ESR: What was the catalyst that began the movement of women to break from the home and join the workforce?
von Seldeneck: It was many factors but I think much of this was the result of the book that Betty Friedan wrote, The Feminine Mystique, which really got this whole thing going. It was about women who were really so unhappy because there were no greater goals or challenges for them other than being a housewife, and they were completely dependent on their husbands for everything. This sort of shattered myths that all women in America really weren’t happy with the status quo. So I think that the aggressive posture that was taken back then really started the feminist movement, which led to the Equal Pay Act which was passed in the 1970s. NOW, the National Organization for Women, was founded by Gloria Steinem and this was really the start of the women’s liberation movement. But it received mixed reviews.
ESR: Was this a surprise to you?
von Seldeneck: It was to a certain degree because I thought that these movements would really start to change things so I was quite surprised, and disappointed, that it didn’t. But because I have been at this from the period when women entered the work- force it has become a real advantage to me, as a woman, as it applies to my work in the search business today; having that time contrast has been valuable. Today there is an acceptance and an understanding that women are going to make up the majority of the workforce and that we don’t have horns so to speak, so they have a much better attitude about it. We are also now viewed as the “go-to” force because we have stood the test of time and we have the networks, the credibility, the knowledge and the wherewithal to get things done.
ESR: Women have always been a part of the workforce, but what events led to women being considered for professional level positions and when did you really see this happening where it became more of a sustained event?
von Seldeneck: It all really started in the 70’s as we talked about with the women’s liberation movement and then the EEOC. The Office of Contract Compliance also played a big role at this time because they warned major companies, like defense contractors that were doing business with the federal government, that if they didn’t do a better job of hiring women and minorities their contracts were going to be at risk and they were now monitoring this which they did for a period of time. And that really brought peace to the process and required certain companies to really pay attention to their hiring data which, in effect, pointed to their hiring more women and diversity candidates. That lasted for a while and then the Carter administration really helped kick off the realization that the workforce could be bolstered and enhanced if women were recognized for the contribution that they can and were making at the mid-level. These were defined as line positions, as opposed to staff positions which were much lower level, so the line positions were gradually improving for women at that time.
ESR: So this was something that really occurred over time.
von Seldeneck: Yes, it was a gradual thing. I give a great deal of credit to President Clinton because, as a man, he set a wonderful example by recognizing and being open to the professionalism of his wife, Hillary Clinton and, quite frankly other women at her level and age. So I think that leaders like that really helped a lot to advance a more positive perception of women in the workforce.
ESR: Do companies today make a concerted effort to include women in a search assignment, and is it because the talent warrants this or is this done as much, or in some cases, as a defense measure?
von Seldeneck: You know 10 or 15 years ago we would get assignments which were called “targeted,” which meant targeted for diversity. And targeted assignments meant that companies had identified a job that they wanted to be filled by a woman, but they couldn’t really say that; and so they would say to us “we just want to see women or people of color for this particular job.” And there was a good bit of it going on. You’d go into the marketplace and you would talk to people of color. But you had to be careful because they would be taken aback if they thought they were being recruited just because this position was targeted for women or people of color when indeed it was. So that was sort of a tricky dynamic. This is now all but disappeared but that did exist some time ago.
ESR: When you are pulling together a long list initially, do you purposely go out and make sure that there’s a certain number of women and, to the same extent, minorities; or does it just fall naturally now?
von Seldeneck: Well, let’s put it this way. Let’s assume for a moment we are conducting a search for an average sized company in this country. When you go out to develop your candidate pool you look at those who are holding these jobs or at the level that you are targeting within whatever the target organization is. Then, if it’s all men and there aren’t any women, you then dig deeper or you go somewhere to find women or diverse candidates that would be qualified that we could put in the candidate pool. So we would never give our client a pool of candidates that were 100 percent white males. First of all we don’t believe that there would not be any women who are not qualified today for any positions. And shame on us if we can’t go find some and our clients would not be happy with us if there wasn’t diversity in the pool. Some clients are more vehement about that than others.
ESR: Corporate boards have traditionally been a white male domain. Today 10 percent of the 4,300 largest companies have at least three women on their boards. Does this track with the number in professional level positions or is it behind; and if so, why?
von Seldeneck: Well, I if you do the math and women make up something like 46.9 percent of the workforce but women hold seats on only 15 percent of public company boards then we are grossly underrepresented. I think that is a real problem and, quite frankly, I think in the past few years those numbers decreased. I don’t know the reason why but it’s of concern to me. So I do think that there’s a big gap. Now, the number of women who are put up for Fortune 500 Company boards had been increasing until the last three years. Let’s take Apple as an example. I know they have only one female board member. Microsoft has two. And these are progressive companies!? Only 31 percent of corporations have more than three female corporate officers and no female officers at the top have increased in the last 10 years.
ESR: Of course a lot of board members are those that are CEOs of other companies and people who are in the top one or two or three positions at other companies. And, of course, we’ve seen how few females are running Fortune 500 companies. So, I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that the higher ranks in business are still also not tracking where they should be because I think a lot of them are pulled from that pool.
von Seldeneck: That’s right and these are dismal numbers. You know, I think, historically, it is accurate to say that boards want people to fill those seats that were or are sitting CEOs. But I think they have loosened up a bit on that more recently. For example, corporate professionals have more expertise in executive compensation, executive pay and regulatory and compliance issues and those types of people are in demand for board seats because those areas have become important areas of expertise. Part of the problem is that executives join boards and many serve for life so the number of seats that actually come up every year is a lot fewer than you would think. I joined my first public company board when I was 40 years old, subsequently served on 10 and have recently begun to step down due to age requirements. I think that skews the statistics in a way and I think it is because there’s not as much activity as you think, we have inherited a great backlog of white men that went on to boards in their 40s and are still on in their 70s, so the turnover for those particular seats is going to be more gradual.
ESR: Does there exist the dynamic that when professional level women have ascended to the upper management ranks that it helps to pull others up the ladder?
von Seldeneck: Absolutely. When I started out we were each other’s worst enemy. It was like a cat fight. But that has changed so much. Thirty-five years ago I cofounded The Forum of Executive Women which is located here in Philadelphia. Today it’s one of the largest organizations of professional women that meet and help each other, network and help try to promote women on boards. And all over the country there are similar women’s groups that have sprung up and blossomed. The thing I really spend a lot of my time working on these days, and where my passion resides, is to help create a culture where other women do not to have to wait as long as it took me to help break down those barriers. I spoke at the Pennsylvania Conference of Women recently and we had something like 4,000 women attending.
ESR: But how does it work within the corporate structure, Judee? Let’s say a woman becomes the CEO or even the CFO of a company. How does that woman then help others to come up through that same organization?
von Seldeneck: If there are openings in the company she should make it her first priority to see if there is a qualified woman within the organization that she can put into that job. Women CEOs need to be sponsors for other women as opposed to mentors; there is a difference.
ESR: When women first started to enter the professional levels at companies their compensation was significantly less as opposed to a male performing the same job. Is compensation today for women on par with males performing the same job or are there still some discrepancies?
von Seldeneck: There are large discrepancies still, without question. I would like to think the gap is narrowing, but I saw some- where that women on average get paid 78 cents for every dollar that a man makes. What I find frustrating is the fact that, in the 1980s and 1990s, women were making gains and they started to tighten the gap between what a man was making and what they were making. Unfortunately that momentum has slowed down and I’ve seen data where men’s salaries are pulling far ahead once again.
ESR: Did women enter the ranks in more traditional functional roles, in part known as the “pink ghetto,” and how has this changed in re- cent years?
von Seldeneck: We first have to differentiate between line jobs and staff jobs. Line positions would include functions like SVP/VP of sales and services and operations as opposed to staff jobs which would include HR, public relations and IT, for example. Fortunately we have seen a rise in the number of women in line jobs and that’s a positive thing because line jobs are better positioned to help move and elevate women into the senior-level or C-suite as opposed to staff jobs which do not foster this movement. In terms of industries, strong sectors for women are in healthcare and education services as well as in government, hospitality, financial services and professional services. I would also add leisure and hospitality to this group. I think manufacturing, industrial, construction and warehousing are four of the worst because men still hold most of the jobs in manufacturing. But what has not helped women in these industries has been the economy – there are fewer jobs for everyone, therefore, if you are going to make strides in a traditionally male environment it has to occur when the industry is more robust and there are more opportunities for women. Recently, I saw where kids graduating from college with engineering degrees had by far getting the most jobs. But, as I just mentioned, there have always been good opportunities for women in financial services and some of the best jobs for women are being found in the science sectors and in healthcare which, many agree, is somewhat recession proof. Education is another, of course, and that sector has doubled probably in the past 30 years in the numbers of jobs.