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Women Roar and a Few Corporate CEOs Bet on Them

By Sarah Bostwick Stromoski, Manager, CEO Leadership, CECP

By far the best thing CEOs and their companies can do to combat sexism, gender discrimination, and sexual misconduct–in short, to support women–is to put diverse women into half of the positions of power and leadership. This is how we resolve a foul, permissive culture.

Can you hear the roar in the corporate corridors?

Just days ago, Uber whistle-blower Susan Fowler and all the other women who broke their silence after suffering sexual harassment and assault became TIME’s and the Financial Times’ 2017 people of the year. This acknowledges the roar heard round the world from women of all ages, places, religions, backgrounds, cultures, professions, companies, industries, and seniority. That roar sent companies’ risk managers scrambling to redraw their matrices and reimagine employee training.  It is so powerful that it has turned entire companies upside-down and aborted the careers of some of the most admired and accomplished businessmen of our time. In its wake, Uber dumped disgraced founder & CEO Travis Kalanick and more than 20 implicated managers. The Weinstein Company, discredited by founder & former CEO Harvey Weinstein’s predation, promptly put itself up for sale. And the list continues. In the business world, the roar has forced women’s workplace safety squarely into the front of the minds of board directors, executives, managers, lawyers, investors, legislators, industry regulators, and insurers.

What’s a company to do? Reversing decades of treating women as objects and haplessly trying to control the damage or buying accusers’ silence in a company culture that was determined by the worst behavior tolerated by its leaders, some are rolling up their sleeves and getting to the business of making themselves a better place to work. Let’s examine three important steps they are taking.

CEOs Signal Leadership in Words

Daring CEOs who lead with conviction are embracing the soapbox, unequivocally spelling out what culture they want inside their companies. CECP CEO Michael Roth of the Interpublic Group, issued a memo to 50,000 employees titled “A Workplace Free of Harassment,” which outlines his zero-tolerance policy, ways to report harassment, and whistle-blower protection. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced forthcoming changes to curb hate and abuse spewed via his platform by removing gratuitous content with a freer hand than before.

A few female CEOs such as Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway clothing service and Whitney Wolfe Herd, co-founder of Tinder and founder & CEO of Bumble, both dating apps, have publicly shared their own experience of sexual harassment and offered constructive advice. On Wall Street, Fidelity CEO Abigail Johnson reinforced the company’s expectations to 400,000 employees via video after terminating two executives for sexual harassment. Aureus Asset Management CEO Karen Firestone shared how recent scandals have caused her to reflect on how she can become a better leader of both women and men.

CEOs Challenge Others

CECP company Mastercard announced its Chief Human Resources Officer will sponsor opportunities for employees to dialogue candidly together about how we can support and promote a culture of decency in an inclusive workplace that doesn’t tolerate harassment.

Fidelity’s Johnson moved her desk to the 11th floor, where the terminated executives used to sit.

Microsoft President Brad Smith, also part of CECP, announced on the company blog “effective immediately, we are waiving the contractual requirement for arbitration of sexual harassment claims” which silence accusers and endorsed a new Senate bill to address sexual harassment, referring to it as a step “we can take together as a country.”

State Street Global Advisors and CEO Ron O’Hanley commissioned Fearless Girl, a public statue of a girl who stares down Wall Street’s iconic Charging Bull, to draw attention to the lack of women on corporate boards. As a matter of course, the firm advocates for gender diversity in the leadership ranks of its thousands of investee companies.  Still, the pay disparity found by the US Department of Labor between State Street’s male and female employees reveals the significant distance we have to go toward equity. (State Street disputed the findings but paid a US$5M settlement.)

StyleSeat founder & CEO Melody McCloskey called on everyone to do their part:

  • Companies to get more women on boards and executive teams, publicize their numbers, and listen to complaints and stop tolerating misbehavior.
  • Venture capitalists to publicly celebrate their female-led investee companies.
  • Women to demand just compensation.
  • Employees – women and men – to stand together publicly against misbehavior.
  • Female executives to mentor younger women.
  • All of us to patronize female-owned businesses.

CEOs Bet on Women

As nice as words are, actions roar louder. In addition to Hyman’s verbal signals, a Rent the Runway-UBS joint venture Project Entrepreneur aims to create a pipeline of female startup CEOs with the skills to build fast-growing companies.

A handful of CEOs are supporting women the best way they can by putting diverse women into half of the positions of power and leadership. For instance, in addition to talking the talk, StyleSeat’s McCloskey has an all-female executive team and majority-female board.

Along those lines, CECP Company Voya Financial has stepped out from the pack and gone about the hard work of improving culture. After the 2008 recession, the global financial institution ING restructured and spun off its US subsidiary, creating Voya. Today, it has a US$8B market cap; employs 6,700; and ranks 266th on the 2017 Fortune 500 list.  CEO Rod Martin, Jr. presented his long-term business plan at CECP’s CEO Investor Forum in New York.  Check out the astoundingly good gender diversity numbers he reported in September at minute 23:45 in this video:

  • Half of its directors were women.
  • Half of Voya’s senior managers were women, far outpacing the average US company even though Voya had a similar percentage of women in management relative to the average US company (40%). This means Voya is doing something special to promote and retain its female leaders that other companies should emulate.
  • 64% of those who led Voya’s business units are women.

In his presentation, Martin said investing heavily in building a culture that differentiates Voya in the marketplace was an imperative after starting a new public company in the wake of the financial crisis, remarking, “Running businesses is hard enough. Having people that can help see around corners from different points of view makes a huge difference”.  Indeed, Voya’s equity and capital return story as of September spoke for themselves. ROE had improved 600 basis points since pre-IPO 2012; stock price had increased by 95% since the IPO in 2013, outperforming the S&P 500 which grew by 57%.


After getting roared at, some CEOs are signaling leadership with their words, challenging others, and a handful are betting on women. Companies such as Voya and the others mentioned here have heard the same roar that we’ve all heard lately. While others have kept quiet, some have spoken out, raised the expectations, and set about making their companies a better place to work. They’ve added their voices and actions to the roar–which does not show signs of fading–thereby supporting women’s demands for equity and respect. If Voya can put half the power and leadership into women’s hands in spite of being publicly traded, humongous, and led by a male CEO in a macho, high-skill industry in the US, many others can too. Onward; let’s get to work.

If you’d like to work with CECP: The CEO Force for Good and other companies on gender equity in the workplace, please let us know!  Email