The Battle Of The Sexes In The Boardroom

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Let’s take a step away from discussing the recession, the layoffs and doomsday for a minute and focus on a microcosm of an issue facing leadership everywhere today.

How do our culture, ethnicity and gender play into our decisions as leaders? Do we follow the oft-quoted Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus ideology?

In a survey conducted by the Executive Leadership Council (ELC) among 150 executives from a broad range of industries across the nation, it was concluded that African-American women face serious challenges if they want that CEO chair. Ancella Livers, executive director of the ELC’s Institute for Leadership Development & Research in an article on the Black Enterprise website likens it to wanting to drive a school bus without a driver’s license, bringing forth the trust factor that becomes primary for the decision on picking the perfect chief executive.

Now, diversity has been and continues to be discussed to the nth degree across our country’s boardrooms. And so has the issue of women and leadership. We’ve been told we need to be more aggressive, we need to think outside the box, we need to keep ourselves visible among the C-level team, etc., etc.

But race and women?

While 75 percent of the surveyed executives agreed that minority participation in the boardroom is very important for innovation and expansion, 31 percent said that a lack of strategic networks remained one of the biggest challenges for African-American women in corporate America.

See these figures for example: there are only 12 women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies or 3 percent, and 24 when you go up to Fortune 1000 as of 2008; only one African-American woman made it into Fortune’s 2008 Top 50 Most Powerful Women and none in the 25 highest paid women executives. Further, 15 percent of Fortune 500 board seats are occupied by women. With only a few dedicated nonprofits and member associations paying due diligence in helping minority women advance, it has been hard to develop the said “strategic networks”. Sort of like telling an entry level candidate that they need more experience to be considered.

Or Virginia Woolf’s thesis in the controversial A Room of One’s Own where she imagines that Shakespeare had a sister and explores the argument that given the same encouragement, recognition, free time and lack of responsibilities, she would have been a literary genius in her own right.

Noteworthy at this point, however, is the acceptance that demographics play a huge part in career advancement as well.

The average woman executive needs to have started working on her corporate climb roughly two decades ago, a time when corporate boardroom and women in the same sentence only produced snickering, to be even considered for the top job. A notable example is Indra K. Nooyi, the lone non-white woman in the 12 women CEOs list mentioned above. She started her climb at PepsiCo. in 1994, at the age of 39 when she was named president and chief financial officer, at a time when growth was aggressive across sectors and gender disparity was beginning to be pushed to a thing of the past.

Vault.com’s Global Finance Editor Derek Loosvelt put this in the financial services perspective in a recent blog where he ponders whether “the demise of Wall Street [may] have been avoided if more women were occupying corner offices fifty-some floors high in the sky?” He gives as evidence CNBC’s Street Fight episode where Beth Brooke, Ernst & Young’s global vice chairwoman says that research has proven that it is highly likely that with a little more estrogen thrown amidst the powers that be, things might be different today.

For the longest time, women have been associated with a high emotional quotient and hormonal sensitivity, therefore saying that men remain completely logical and scientific in their decisions. While this is not meant to be a feminist march about more power to us, I do then wonder if it does have anything to do with introducing more participation by women in the boardroom. Maybe choosing candidates for the corner office solely on qualifications and “strategic networks” isn’t helping us make good decisions in corporate America.

Maybe the realization that a diverse group of executives results in better-rounded judgment calls and ultimately the route our economy takes is a question that must be raised in the CEO office.

If we had the courage to elect our first African-American President, surely we can embrace due diligence in the boardroom.

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Aman Singh is an Editor with Vault and works with Fortune 500 companies on reporting their diversity recruitment strategies and initiatives.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com