Champions for Change


Women represent about 51% of the United States’ population. We earn 60% of all master’s degrees in the United States and control or influence more than 70% of consumer spending. Despite these figures, women are still largely absent from corporate boardrooms and corner offices: only about 5% of CEOs in corporate America are women. Of the companies in the S&P 500, around 26.5% of executives are women and just 21% of board seats are held by women. The percentage of these positions held by women of color is even lower. Compounding this, the number of women in these senior roles has grown by just 1% from 2007 to 2015.

Recognizing this stagnation—and the fact that accelerating the representation of women, including women of color, in senior executive positions and boards of directors over the next five years is progress for everyone—on International Women’s Day 2017, more than 40 global industry leaders, among them Debevoise, joined the launch of Catalyst CEO Champions for Change, an initiative seeking to advance the progress of women at all levels of leadership.

Since its launch one year ago, the group of CEO Champions has grown to more than 50 companies, representing 9 million employees and more than $1.7 trillion in revenue globally, across industries including insurance, travel, logistics, aerospace and defense technology, financial services, pharmaceuticals, and the law.

Last fall, Catalyst released a report reflecting on the differences between companies participating in Champions for Change and their peers in the S&P 500. The results were clear: presently, Champions for Change companies outperform their peers in advancing women into leadership at all levels. Women at participating companies hold more first/mid-level positions, executive/senior-level positions, and board seats by 1.5%, 1.4%, and 7.8% respectively, compared to women at peer companies. Women of color at participating companies also held more positions than at peer companies, outpacing peers in first/mid-level and executive/senior-level positions by 0.8% and 0.5% respectively, and board seats by 2.2%. These percentages may seem fairly small, but given the size of these companies, they are quite powerful. To provide context: if S&P 500 companies were to improve the total number of women in leadership roles by a mere 1%, there would be an additional 12,000 women in these roles.

Why have participating companies succeeded in moving the needle? Catalyst’s report suggests that what distinguishes these companies is, “in a word, priority.” They champion the advancement of women. Of course, the commitment that participating companies have made to accelerating women’s leadership is not one that should be exclusive to those companies if we really want women to advance in corporate America. So what can other companies do? Catalyst helpfully offers 10 actions an organization can take to accelerate this change:

  • Build an inclusive corporate culture. Observe, understand, and build an inclusive culture in the workplace from the top down.
  • Incentivize inclusive leadership. Reward leaders for achieving inclusion with concrete goals; maintain zero tolerance for exclusive actions.
  • Shine a light on women of color. Make leaders accountable for developing goals for advancing women of color and achieving them.
  • Engage men as champions. Insist that men in leadership roles champion, mentor and sponsor women.
  • Unlock “hot jobs” to help accelerate women’s careers. Ensure that women have access to high-visibility, “mission-critical” roles that are crucial to advancement.
  • Shake up your board. Review your recruiting policies and go outside the usual suspects to recruit a board that truly represents your consumers and communities.
  • Unmask unconscious bias. Provide mandatory training about understanding this bias and flip it by assigning mentors to mentees with different backgrounds.
  • Get real about gender, race and ethnicity. Have conversations about communicating across these differences.
  • Close the wage gap. Immediately. Audit for a wage gap. If you have one, implement policies and processes to close it.
  • Prioritize productivity over physical presence. Understand why flexible policies retain the best talent and adopt policies promoting flexible work environments.

While no small lift, these 10 concrete steps, which any organization can take, will ensure that we’ll make real strides in the next five years to ensure that companies and boardrooms look more like our country. And we’ll certainly be checking in again to see how the participating Champions for Change companies—and others in corporate America—progress toward these goals.

Mimi Yang is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.