A woman was introduced this summer as General Motors’ next chief financial officer, joining its female chief executive officer atop a giant of corporate America.

It was hailed as a win for inclusion, opportunity, and fairness. Then again, CNN Money called the move “rare,” noting it is only the second female CEO–CFO combination among all Fortune 500 companies worldwide.

So, is it a sign of progress, or how far we still have to go?

Dhivya Suryadevara, who will become chief financial officer of General Motors, effective Sept. 1, 2018. Photo courtesy GM

Dhivya Suryadevara, who will become chief financial officer of General Motors, effective Sept. 1, 2018. Photo courtesy GM

“I hope it will become a trend. But, I think at this point it is an outlier event,” Ayalla Ruvio, PhD, an assistant professor and researcher in the Eli Broad College of Business Department of Marketing, said of 39-year-old Dhivya Suryadevara’s rise to GM CFO, joining CEO Mary Barra.

“It is very unusual to have two women in high executive roles in any corporation. Even a woman in a leading position is very unusual,” said Ruvio, adding that recent data indicates only 25 percent of executive and senior level managers are women, and only about 6 percent hold a CEO position, even though more than one-third of all MBA students and more than half of all college grads are women.

Unusual, but not unique

“This is not a situation unique to the business world,” Ruvio said. “Only 25 percent of the seats in state legislatures are held by women, and only 10 percent of governors are women. We are not doing any better in academia. Less than one-third of full professors and about a quarter of college presidents are women.”

“But this imbalance cannot be attributed only to lack of opportunity. Regrettably, many talented and capable women avoid taking senior leadership roles for various reasons,” Ruvio said. “Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that the corporate leadership opportunities for women are few and far between compared to those of men.”

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary T. Barra. Photo courtesy GM

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary T. Barra. Photo courtesy GM

“Women frequently struggle with issues such as non-inclusive and sometimes even hostile workplace environments, greater demands and less compensation, lack of access to key positions and promotion opportunities, lack of access to skill development opportunities, lack of flexible work arrangements, lack of mentorship and sponsorship, lack of networking opportunities, and the failure to be accepted and respected as effective leaders,” Ruvio said. “Balancing work and family life is another significant challenge that discourages many women from pursuing leadership roles.”

Ayalla Ruvio

Ayalla Ruvio

The Broad College of Business is making it a priority to ensure that the best people rise to the top, regardless of gender.

“We are trying to address this notion of gender parity or breaking through the glass ceiling or Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘lean in’ phenomenon, they are coming together in a nice way for us to say, where are those road blocks, impediments for gender parity to actually take place?” said Eli Broad College of Business Dean Sanjay Gupta.

One major Broad College initiative is its Executive Leadership for Women Program. The two-day seminars, this year scheduled for Oct. 24–25 and Nov. 15–16 at the James B. Henry Center for Executive Development in Lansing, is aimed at helping high-potential women unlock their strengths not just to advance their own careers, but to ensure that talent isn’t wasted by ensuring people with the best skills get noticed and properly utilized.

The program offers tips, tools, and insights on how to best do that, while recognizing opportunities and challenges unique to women leaders.

Helping women fulfill their potential

“There are several factors that I think work against women; one, women have a tendency to be very strong negotiators in many cases for their companies, for their family, for everyone except for themselves. Women do not do a good job negotiating for themselves,” said Kristin St. Marie, assistant director of Broad College open enrollment Executive Development Programs. “They tend to take what is given to them, as a general tendency. So, we incorporate some content on how to effectively negotiate, specifically for salary or for advancement opportunities.”

Kristin St. Marie

Kristin St. Marie

“Men have a stronger tendency to take risks and try new things; women have a tendency to wait too long, not be very risk-taking, and then companies tend to reward their male and female employees differently as well,” St. Marie said. “Studies show that organizations will reward and promote men based on their future potential, and reward and promote women based on their past performance. I think all these factors pull together why women aren’t receiving those opportunities.”

Many of the students who attend the women’s leadership course are mid-career professionals in their 30s and 40s. “They’re all kind of just having babies or have very young families. It’s a lot to struggle with,” St. Marie said. “The more women see other women achieving success in their career without sacrificing their family, the more women will identify that, ‘I can do that, too.’”

“More and more women now like Mary Barra now are a wonderful example that you can have a family and have a fantastic career. You can have them both. There are trade-offs, and you need support,” but it can be done, St. Marie said.

Among program attendees, within one year more than half see promotions or advancement in their careers, St. Marie said.

“They attribute what they learned in the program as a strong reason why they were able to receive that promotion,” St. Marie said. “It really helps women feel empowered and creates a strong awareness of, some of it’s our own fault. We’re not advocating for ourselves. We’re not shamelessly self-promoting and asking for opportunities and waiting too long before we do take risks and try new things. Also, organizations are pushing against the opportunities for women.”

“All those things create a lot of awareness, and we try to provide some tools to help them be more confident and ready when those opportunities arise,” St. Marie said. “Their opportunities were probably always there; they just didn’t take advantage of the opportunities.”

Teaching leadership throughout life

Other initiatives working to bring the best out of women at the Broad College include:

  • Networking stemming from the Executive Leadership for Women seminars. “We’re really proud of the opportunity we’ve had to create a strong network of women to collaborate and have that same network that men typically might have in the business world,” St. Marie said. “This is really helping the women when they stay connected. We provide opportunities for them to stay connected after they leave our classroom space.”
  • The annual Advancing Women in Business conference, which includes a workshop, a reception with networking opportunities, and guest speakers—who at last year’s event included Maximiliane Straub, Robert Bosch LLC CFO and vice president for finance, controlling, and administration, who was one of Crain’s Detroit Business’s 100 Most Influential Women of 2016.
  • Various events hosted by the Broad Women MBA Association. Those get-togethers were started “to expose women to the opportunity to gain an MBA and how that could impact your career, but it’s really open to any woman in our network, whether they’re an alum or not,” St. Marie said. “It’s an opportunity to hear from other successful women and learn about the opportunities to connect within their college and the university community.”
  • EmpowHER, an annual two-day retreat in which girls in grades 4 through 9 work on leadership, self-esteem, and personal empowerment. The program, a joint effort between the Broad College and MSU women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant, was also offered as a course during this year’s Grandparents’ University event, serving Spartan alums and their grandchildren.
  • The annual Women in Business Leadership conference, hosted by the Women in Business Students’ Association. The event “is a necessity for anyone hoping to reach high levels in the business world. Being able to connect with like-minded business leaders sets the stage for meaningful discussions and lasting relationships. Invest in yourself and take the time to find your guide to success,” said Hannah Crittenden, who was the group’s president this past school year.

Such self-help efforts are important, Ruvio said.

“Women also need to support each other more, especially in leadership positions. Women need to create their own networks and become role models for each other,” Ruvio said. “It can be very lonely at the top, especially for women.”

Companies need to do more than pay lip service to the ideas of equal opportunity. Women aren’t the only beneficiary of such efforts.

“An advantage, not a disruption”

“Women have a lot to contribute to the company’s culture, decision making process, and success in general. Women bring to the table a different perspective than men,” Ruvio said. “That should be viewed as an advantage, not a disruption.”

Sanjay Gupta

Sanjay Gupta

“Making the creation of an equal opportunity environment a priority means investing resources in building an infrastructure that will enable women to develop their leadership skills, as well as setting up mechanisms to ensure that women will be offered opportunities for advancement and will be considered for these opportunities,” Ruvio said.

The Broad College is also trying to lead by example.

“Apart from all of these events we are doing, apart from all of these things here, we are also focusing on what are the actions we need to take to provide a clear and unambiguous example of how we are shaping our own behaviors,” Gupta said. “For example, I’ve been very deliberate in thinking about our leadership team within the Broad College, and trying to make sure that we think about gender parity and what does that mean?”

At the Broad College, that has included promoting women into leadership roles in academic departments and administrative units including communications and marketing, career services, and undergraduate advising, Gupta said.

“What you are trying to demonstrate is there is capacity, there is ability, and there is willingness, and what we need to be able to constantly remind ourselves is, how do we sponsor that growth and those outcomes?” Gupta said. “How do we enable that to happen?”

That’s what the college is working on, so that in the future, a woman CFO isn’t newsworthy at all.