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Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Jewelle Wooten Bickford '63

Jewelle Wooten Bickford ’63

Alumna leads national effort to place more women in leadership positions

When Jewelle Wooten Bickford ’63 first entered the workforce, she knew there would be many glass ceilings in her way. After all, it was more common for women to stay at home than pursue a career, much less one in business. Over the next decades, Bickford’s persistence, talent, and reputation for excellence ultimately pushed her to top positions with major investment banking companies.

She is currently a partner with Evercore Wealth Management. In addition, she served for 10 years on Randolph’s Board of Trustees and has held numerous leadership positions on boards across the United States. During her long career, Bickford has seen much change in the workforce, and it has become more common for women to earn business degrees and enter previously male–dominated fields. Yet, Bickford’s hope that opening the pipeline would result in more women represented in top leadership positions and boards has not been realized.

Despite the fact that women make up 50.9 percent of the United States population and account for 47 percent of the total U.S. labor force, only 1,835 out of 9,976 executives employed at Fortune 1000 companies are women. And in S&P 500 companies, women account for just 14.2 percent of top executive positions and only 24 CEO positons.

“There’s a disconnect between the number of women we are graduating and the number of women in the pipeline,” Bickford said. “Something is going on that needs to change.”

Frustration at the slow pace of that change prompted Bickford, along with several other female executives, to recently form the Paradigm for Parity coalition. The coalition’s ultimate goal is to address the corporate leadership gender gap and bring gender parity by 2030 with a near–term goal of women holding at least 30 percent of senior roles.

“Every job I’ve ever had, I’ve had to knock hard on the door to just do my job,” said Bickford, who is co–chair of the organization. “It should be easier for women than that.”

Paradigm for Parity provides businesses with a five–point action plan that serves as a comprehensive roadmap for increasing the number of women in leadership positions. The five points include eliminating or minimizing unconscious bias, increasing the number of women in senior operating roles, measuring targets at every level and communicating progress regularly, basing career progress on business results and performance, not on presence, and identifying women of potential and giving them mentors and sponsors.

“A lot of people have done really great research and taken positions in terms of thought leadership on this issue,” Bickford said. “What was missing was an action plan you could give to CEOs and say, if you implement this, concurrently all at once, you will see actual improvement, really rather quickly.”

Once a company joins the coalition, the business is provided with a plan and support. So far, nearly 50 businesses have signed on, including American Electric Power, LinkedIn, Coca–Cola Company, and Bloomberg. The group expects more than 100 by the end of the year, and Bickford fully expects to see significant progress within 18 months.

“The companies who have a diverse workforce are much more profitable,” Bickford said. “That’s been proven.”

The coalition points to numerous reports on its website as evidence of the importance of gender diversity. According to McKinsey & Company research, the most gender diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry means. The Credit Suisse Research Institute has reported that companies with 50 percent women in senior operating roles show 19 percent higher return on equity on average.

“We just want CEOs to focus on this as a solution,” Bickford said. “If you don’t have any women in your organization, if you are not diverse or inclusive, you need to concentrate on changing that. You should be looking for highly qualified women.”

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