How to Fill Senior Women Pipeline

By Barbara Frankel

Ten years ago, the pipeline of women in the top three levels of almost all major corporations was, frankly, pathetic. Today, it’s only a little better – except at a handful of companies that have made a focused effort to identify, retain and promote high-potential women executives.

Senior Women Executives

U.S. (EEOC)16%29.2%
DI Top 5020.3%31.1%
DI Top for WomenNA47.8%

What’s changed – and what can we learn from companies that have had a significant improvement in their female pipeline to the top? We examined the 21 companies on The 2015 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list that had the highest percentages of women in the top three levels and interviewed senior female leaders at four companies with particularly strong track records for executive women – Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, EY, Wells Fargo and MassMutual Financial Group. If we look at these four companies, they each have raised their percentage of women at the top or promotion rates for senior women by between 20% and 40% in recent years.

Here are their case studies, including data showing their strengths on executive women, and significant learnings:

Case Study No. 1: Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation

Caryn Parlavecchio, Novartis Pharmaceuticals CorporationCaryn Parlavecchio, Vice President, HR

Current Data on Executive Women: Compared against the Top 50 average, NPC has almost double the percentage of women in the top level, 1.5 times the percentage at the second level, and 34% more at the third level.

With women representing 60 percent of direct reports to U.S. Country Head and President Christi Shaw – most in scientific or revenue-generating positions — Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation (NPC) is a prime example of a strong female pipeline. That sustained effort to build female talent has helped the company be No. 1 on the Top 50 list for the past two years.

But it wasn’t always that way, according to Parlavecchio.

“Nationally, we still see that there are not as many females in the C-suite as men. We are on the precipice of a sea change but it has not been the rite of passage. Until organizations make a concerted effort (as NPC did), we won’t see significant results.”

Parlavecchio and other top NPC executives agree the 2010 gender-bias lawsuit pushed the organization to assess its efforts to retain and promote women. While those efforts had started around 2008, they were jumpstarted significantly in 2010.

Under former President Andre Wyss and Christi Shaw (who took over in 2014), “it became a matter of focus,” Parlavecchio said. Slates for all executive openings had to be diverse for gender and race/ethnicity. “We held people accountable for making a real change and a profound difference.”

Specifically, NPC:

• Instituted an Executive Leadership Program in the commercial and medical divisions to prepare them to become senior executives. “We had to believe they had potential for macro programs at the division level,” Parlavecchio said. “We targeted women in line jobs. We really wanted to make changes in our commercial and medical organizations.” Since 2010, there have been 140 participants. They have a 90% retention rate, 85% have moved into new roles, and 50% have been promoted.

• The Leading Up program targets more junior women at the director and associate director level and gives them exposure to learn from key leaders about their career paths. They receive coaching for six months and classroom training around building leadership capabilities and focusing on leadership style and career development. Since 2008, 95 women have participated.

• NPC participated in The Rutgers Executive Leadership Program for Women. Since 2005, 40 women have participated, including many now in top leadership positions.

• Mentoring and sponsorship of women has been emphasized significantly in the last five years, but Parlavecchio believes there need to be even more focus on more formal sponsorship. “If you don’t have sponsorship, someone pulling you through the organization, you aren’t to going to have the greatest results,” she sais.

• The women’s employee-resource group and other resource groups have created mentoring programs and also showcased initiatives on how to identify a mentor as well as career development.

“In the last three years, building on foundational work that started as early as seven years ago, we have catapulted into a whole different stratosphere in general female leadership across the commercial and medical areas … We now have more women in leadership positions than men,” said Parlavecchio, who has been with NPC for 14 years.

She noted there are many opportunities in the broader global Novartis universe (the global headquarters is in Basel, Switzerland) and she worries that some women in the United States may hit a ceiling and not want to move to Basel to reach the next level.

“That’s what keeps me up at night. Most of our gen med (general medicine) global roles are in Basel but we do have gen oncology headquartered in the United States. There are no absolutes but if you are going to assume a large global organizational responsibility and you have not had any assignments outside of the United States it can be difficult,” she noted.

Case Study No. 2: EY

Diana Solash, EY

Katherine Fritts, Southeast Region Tax Managing Principal, and Diana Solash, Director, Global Diversity & Inclusiveness

Current data on Executive Women: Turnover gaps between men and women have been reduced from 10-15% 25 years ago to virtually zero. EY has 13% more women at its top level (CEO and direct reports) than the Top 50 average and has seen a double-digit increase in promotions of women into the top three levels in the past two years.

“Historically, organizations have had and still have issues retaining women and we’ve had this dialogue going on for 25 years,” Fritts said. “We saw the problem and made a concerted effort to modernize the workplace so high-potential women could have meaningful careers and satisfying home lives.”

Simply put, she said: “We focus on fixing the workplace, not fixing the women.”

What that has meant is changing organizational assumptions that women, especially mothers, want diminished roles at certain times in their careers.

“There was an unintended bias about mothers. People were making those assumptions without even asking in an effort to protect someone,” Solash said.

She noted that as all people rise through the ranks, technical skills often determine promotions. But at a management level, more intangible factors, such as executive presence, count more. In these cases, the firm realized that women needed more equitable opportunities for senior-partner sponsorship.

“We looked at our criteria for executive presence. Are there biases that put individuals who are not the majority at a disadvantage? Did someone get picked because I like him and we socialize?” she said.

At EY, people often were picked for plum roles by tradition, such as they came from a specific practice within the firm that always got that assignment. “We started taking a pause and asking questions. What other skill sets could be used on this team?” Solash asked.


Fritts, who has risen through the ranks at EY in her more than 20 years with the firm, believes the biggest challenge for EY in retaining and promoting more executive women was transparency.

“I started as a senior manager. I could feel something was going on. Partners were putting me on great projects with important clients in international work. It was not entirely in secret but it wasn’t clear. We are much more open today. It helps everybody start these conversations as we move forward,” she sais.

Many of those discussions are around flexibility. Like many of the companies that have improved their women executive numbers dramatically, EY has a culture of flexibility that is tailored to each employee’s individual situation.

This benefits men as well, Solash noted. “We talk with our teams and have a commitment to how we make this work so we can meet our work commitments and our personal commitments. It’s very much about intent and communication.” She notes that means very clearly discussing the impact of issues such as adoption, divorce and single parenthood.

“What are the expectations we need to meet the need of our clients? There is constant communication and negotiation. It’s a big relief when it can be done transparently and openly,” she said.

Technology, Fritts added, has changed the focus on flexibility to allow employees to work differently and often more efficiently.

The firm also has a two-year program for high performing high potentials, which allows them to align with partners in their specific practice and build skills and networking abilities with peers and superiors.

At the partner level, the Inclusiveness Leadership Program pairs high-potential partners and principals with an executive coach, as well as with members of the Americas Executive team, such as Americas Managing Partner Steve Howe; Americas Vice Chair, Tax Service Kate Barton; and Americas Vice Chair, Talent Kelly Grier, who serve as mentors.

“I was in that program and the exposure made a huge difference,” Solash said.

Both women note that EY’s strong Professional Women’s Network (employee-resource group), which has close to 100 partner leaders, has played a key role in identifying top women talent and help them create a flexible and transparent culture. The network provides access to role models and training, such as improving speaking skills and leadership abilities.

Case Study No. 3: Wells Fargo

Cara Peck, Executive Vice President, Talent Planning and Development Services

Current Data on Executive Women: 40% of direct reports to CEO and President John Stumpf are women, running two of the four primary businesses.

“Wells Fargo has been different for a long time, and is very unusual for the Fortune 500. That 40% at the top stays pretty level for the pipeline, even as we go six levels down,” Peck said.

She started at Wells 16 years ago in the asset-management group, and at the time there were many women in line positions in that department. “I never felt as a woman in Wells that there were any barriers to succeed,” she recalled.

The keys, she said, have been a very strong culture of mentoring and the ability in such a large organization for different types of stretch assignments.

She noted that Wells has not developed formal sponsorship yet but that many leaders are real advocates for high-potential women.

“My boss, a woman, encouraged me to make brave choices, such as going from marketing to running distribution. I didn’t want to go back into typical asset-management sales, which was pretty much white male-dominated. She helped me see what transferrable skills I had,” she said.

John Stumpf, she pointed out, has pushed cross-divisional mentoring for high potentials as well as increased visibility for emerging talent, especially women.

Leadership development as part of employee-resource groups for women and others from under-represented groups has been enhanced since Jimmie Paschall took over as head of diversity, Peck explained.

Efforts to help emerging leaders also include more opportunities to serve on non-profit boards, increased on-boarding efforts for people who are in leadership positions, and, most importantly, a variety of experiences.

Cara notes that leadership development is 10% learning in traditional classes, 20% mentoring, and 70% real-life experience.

“The best experience is to move around and work in different business lines,” she said.

Case Study No. 4: MassMutual Financial Group

Lorie-Valle-Yanez-142Lorie Valle-Yanez, Vice President, Chief Diversity Officer

Current Data on Executive Women: Four of nine reports to the CEO are women and both levels 2 and 3 exceed the Top 50 average for women, level 3 by more than 20%. In addition, promotions into all top levels exceed the Top 50 by more than 10%.

While financial-services companies like Wells Fargo and Mass Mutual traditionally had good workforce gender representation, getting women in the pipeline to senior management has been a major initiative, Valle-Yanez said.

“We are a majority female organization and our challenge is to bring more women at the top,” she said. The initiative started in 1996 and has escalated in recent years, with benchmarking against DiversityInc Top 50 companies to understand how to be one of the best for executive women.

Tracking retention and engagement of women from early management, to high-potential designation, to the senior levels has helped, Valle-Yanez said. “We really focus on our top performers. Our goal is to have a 97% retention rate and make sure there are opportunities for growth.”

She notes that unconscious bias can really thwart efforts to advance women. “Whether there is a real or perceived old boy’s club, it can still hurt,” she noted.

MassMutual Financial Group tracks levels of engagement at all leadership groups and also has “focus groups” to find out what issues they perceive.

“The best people to ask are the women who are still here. What do we do well and what should we change?” she asked.

MassMutual’s Women’s Leadership group has worked on bringing awareness on gender differences. “They also challenged us to tighten up our talent processes, to communicate and be transparent.”

The group, which was formed about five years ago, consists of 243 female thought leaders in the company at the assistant vice president and above level.

MassMutual heavily emphasizes mentoring, with a particular program aimed at top high-performing women. Employee-resource groups have traditional and reverse mentoring (for young people to teach their older colleagues). And they have had valuable leadership training, including a session with the Board of Directors on the importance of diversity and leadership.

Women who are earmarked for leadership receive mentoring and executive coaching but “every woman in the company has opportunities for networking and mentoring.”

AlthoughValle-Yanez believes that external recognition, such as being named a DiversityInc Top 50 company this year, improves engagement, she still feels “we have a long way to go. We are always raising the bar on ourselves.”

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