June 2021 | Q&A Spotlight

Increasing women representation in the C-suite: A Q&A with Matt Sondag

What actions can organizations take to promote more women to the C-suite?

Increasing women representation in the C-suite: A Q&A with Matt Sondag

Increasing women representation in the C-suite is a clear priority for most corporations. But the pandemic’s affect on women in the workforce has caused a real issue: 3 million U.S. women have dropped out of the workforce in just the last year. The fear is that there will be long-term consequences from this. To learn more about the impact that women leaders can have on an organization—along with best practices that translate to results—we discussed the issue with Matt Sondag, leader of our mergers and acquisitions practice who has worked with hundreds of management teams throughout his career.

Does company leadership have a responsibility to have more women serving in their C-suite?

Sondag: Yes, they should. At West Monroe we believe that diverse leadership teams lead to better business strategies and that corporate boards should feel compelled to make their C-suite more diverse. In fact, two of our own seven C-suite members are women.

But it’s not just about the C-suite. A commitment to inclusion and diversity must cascade throughout the entire organization. I lead the Mergers & Acquisitions practice at West Monroe and we’re on a mission to increase the representation of women at all levels, from entry-level consulting all the way to Senior Partner. This all-level, all-hands-on-deck approach helps build a stronger pipeline of women leaders to reach the C-suite in the future. Not just those already at the height of their careers today. 

Is there evidence that this leads to a successful organization?

Sondag: There are many studies that illustrate women serving in C-suite roles is a good strategy, including academic research published in Harvard Business Review that shows firms with more women in senior positions are more profitable and get higher marks for customer experience. Stanford research shows that diversity improves corporate decision-making.

At West Monroe, we work with over 40% of the top 100 private equity firms, which means we see a lot of companies under the management of private equity. I see this play out in everyday life—women typically have very high EQs and strong empathy skills, both of which are critical leadership traits. That combination leads to better questions, better collaboration, and better business outcomes when they are in a leadership position. 

What are the biggest barriers facing women who want to rise to C-suite level at the moment, in your opinion?

Sondag: From our viewpoint, the biggest barrier right now is the brunt of the pandemic: 3 million U.S. women have dropped out of the workforce in just the last year. Working women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and had to pivot accordingly to balance personal obligations. The fear is that there will be long-term consequences because of this. Our executive poll showed that the majority of executives are aware of this trend and are doing something about it, but 23% are not. The most common action they’re taking to address the issue is providing more flexible work arrangements, but that’s not the silver bullet. Fewer are adjusting their hiring strategy and offering increased childcare benefits.

Another barrier facing women for a long time is that they don’t see other women in the C-suite or feel significantly outnumbered in leadership ranks. This can really affect their confidence, which could make them underestimate their ability to one day be sitting in the C-suite. I also think in order to attract and retain women, it’s incredibly important for women to see and work alongside other talented women. While we all want to diversify, we also want to feel included, and that means seeing people just like us navigating and succeeding in the workplace. We all need role models.

How can an organization’s leadership play a role in increasing the number of women in the C-suite?

Sondag: I see a great deal of commitment and interest among corporate leaders to overcome this issue. The biggest issue is knowing where to start or how to make a measurable, real impact. It’s a good idea to have a strong mentorship program in place for women—and one that includes men as mentors. If you aren’t including men as mentors, you are missing the mark. They are a critical component to getting more women in the C-suite. Take it from our own CMO Casey Foss who has talked about how male mentors helped her achieve new heights in her career.

Modeling the right behaviors by being vulnerable is also important. We need to tell these stories of professional and personal adversity to our teams. This shows heart and authenticity and that it takes more than a tough person to succeed. Workplaces should also adapt to needs of parents. According to research by Qualtrics and Accel Partners, 76 percent of millennials said they would be willing to take a pay cut of at least 3% to work for a company offering flexible hours. The good news is hybrid work models driven by the pandemic will afford more flexibility, especially for the women who might be balancing additional personal responsibilities. 

Lastly, companies must develop, upskill, and prepare employees at all levels to reach the C-suite. It’s not enough to do this for a handful of people who are “almost there” or who have “the most potential.”

Are there any mistakes organizations should avoid when making their C-suite more representative?

Sondag: Diversity is not just limited to race and gender. Inclusion and diversity is also about building a workplace with the best representation of ideas and experiences. And placing a strong emphasis on inclusion is critical because without inclusion, diversity doesn’t matter. Another mistake I see when elevating women is asking them to speak only about women’s issues instead of their areas of expertise or business issues. For example, we hosted a panel of all-female CEOs, but they discussed corporate transformation. That is the platform they need. While we all want to advance discussions about women issues, that shouldn’t be the token speakers or the only time women are elevated to join the conversation.

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