How Top Companies Support Their Female Executives

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, fostering gender diversity is key to survival. Here’s how a dozen organizations are ensuring they have accomplished women at the top in decision making positions.

Fostering gender diversity isn’t merely good corporate behavior. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, it’s key to survival. As AT&T VP of Talent Management Julie Bugala says, “women are a majority of our customer base, so understanding their needs, habits, and preferences is critical to us. And it’s imperative that we have accomplished women at the top in decision-making positions throughout the company.”

We wanted to know what major corporations are doing to support their female executives. So we interviewed representatives of a dozen organizations:

  • 3M (product inventions)
  • Allstate (insurance)
  • Aon (risk management)
  • AT&T (telecommunications)
  • Deloitte (Big Four)
  • Edward Jones (financial management)
  • Eli Lilly (pharmaceuticals)
  • FleishmanHillard (public relations)
  • First Horizon National (banking)
  • Microsoft (software/hardware)
  • Salk Institute (biology/health research)
  • State Farm (insurance)

You can hear edited versions of all these interviews by visiting our career diversity/ Millennial podcast site at

What They Face

Before determining how to most effectively bolster female executives, it’s helpful to understand some of the challenges they face. Consider Deepa Purushothaman of Deloitte, who notes that as a 5′ 1″ Indian woman, “I don’t necessarily fit the mold of what people think a leader and an executive is going to look like.” When walking into meetings she was about to lead, she frequently suffered such questions as, “Are you here to take notes?”

Purushothaman still clearly remembers a highstakes consultation scheduled to last an hour with the chief technology officer (CTO) of a large technology firm. When she entered his office, before she even had a chance to sit down, he looked at her and said, “‘If I had a daughter—which I don’t, but if I did—she actually would be older than you. What could you possibly have to share with me?’

“If you could see my throat at the time,” Purushothaman says, “it was this big lump. I swallowed to try to find courage from somewhere, and ground myself in my feet, so I could answer him back in a strong voice versus the ‘Oh, my God, what am I going to say? ’ voice I heard going on in my head.”

Purushothaman managed to calm herself and respond, “Give me 15 minutes. And if I don’t say something that is helpful, I’ll give you back the rest of the 45 minutes.”

“In that moment, I realized I didn’t have the gray hair or years of experience he was maybe expecting. I didn’t have the engineering or technical depth he was expecting. But what I did have was the ability to tell him things he hadn’t been hearing,” Purushothaman says. “Because of his personality, I think a lot of people shied away from telling him the truth, so I was direct and open, and he found that refreshing. And he learned some of the challenges his people were facing and the company was facing. He ended up meeting with me for more than two hours. And he ended up being one of my biggest clients, and one of our biggest projects for the next few years.”

Finding the strength to say the right thing at the right moment isn’t only a matter of personal character; it’s often fueled by institutional support. Purushothaman credited a program that put her together with other female Deloitte executives five times a year for sessions running two to three days each. “For me, the big ‘aha! ’ was I learned some of the things I was struggling with were the same things these other women were struggling with. (That) gave me such a boost of confidence, I can’t even explain. There’s ‘The Imposter’s Complex,’ which a lot of women have. Realizing that I was placing too much emphasis on what I didn’t know versus what I did know was a huge turning point.”

Purushothaman adds, “You can’t really manage how people see you or what they make up about you, but you can influence what they think when you leave a room. So don’t focus so much on what people think when you walk in—control what you can control, and be conscious of it. But focus more on what you say in the room, so that changes.” Purushothaman now shares such hard-won lessons with her colleagues as managing principal of Deloitte’s Women’s Initiative.

Employee Resource Groups

Every company we spoke with sponsors Employee Resource Groups. For example, State Farm has Women in Networking, which VP of HR Annette Martinez says allows “female leaders to come together to talk about career development, do a lot of networking, and create a platform for women to succeed by getting support from other women.”

Such groups also typically develop and host training programs. For instance, Aon’s Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion Nichole Barnes Marshall shares, “often women will focus more on the tactical aspects such as degrees, experience, and skill sets. These are all great…but it’s also the image and the exposure.” Aon’s Women’s International Network, therefore, offers a series of popular workshops on “appearance, how you represent yourself… communication styles, body language—all the things that build the package and your ability to articulate your value.”

Further promoting visibility are such programs as the Salk Institute’s Women in Science, a series of seminars scientist Amy Rommel describes as “a bridge between the scientists at Salk and successful women in science or industry, and the community.” The program gives presenters the opportunity to network with scientists outside of Salk, meet business and government leaders who might help fund their research, and motivate young girls drawn to science. Scientist Laura Tan adds that making the public understand their work is part of the job: “We don’t want to be stuck in an ivory tower. We want to be part of the community.”

Other ways companies share knowledge and training include internal Websites, such as AT&T’s World of Women (WOW). VP of Talent Management Julie Bugala describes WOW as a “one-stop shop for tools, resources, and information that women can use throughout their careers to…spark the conversation about issues and opportunities that impact women inside and outside of work; challenge the status quo; and, ultimately, help shape our practices in the future around women.”

Eli Lilly has a similar intranet site, but goes a step further with a public Website, Women @ Lilly, at The latter includes stories of women who this global corporation has championed worldwide—even in cultures that don’t traditionally encourage female business leaders such as Japan, Korea, and Saudi Arabia—inspiring both current employees and potential new ones.

Mentors that Matter

Yet another way to train female executives is through mentorships. Every company we spoke with backs this, be it through formal matching or simply by creating an environment that encourages employees to find experienced advisors to guide them. For example, Allstate Director of Talent and Leadership Effectiveness Dianne Ferrara points to a new program in which “our Executive VP of HR reached out and selected five women to mentor.” It didn’t stop there, though—each of those women then chose five women to mentor, and so on. Called Power of Five, the program is “an organic method” of female executives both receiving help and paying it forward, Ferrara says.

Some companies, such as First Horizon National, also hire professional coaches. According to Lynne Walker, executive VP of Affinity Banking, these give female executives a consistent “safe place to talk, bounce ideas off of, and get different perspectives and feedback in order to make them better, stronger leaders.”

Equally important for career success is sponsorship, which encourages high-level executives to champion and recommend promising talent for key opportunities. A variation on this concept is AT&T’s Executive Women’s Leadership Experience, which Bugala says is “specifically designed to further develop and retain our highest-potential female senior managers with high visibility to key business leaders and the CEO. The 20 high-potential female leaders are hand-selected for three multi-day sessions throughout the year. They’re like workshops, and they are taught by senior executives from within the company, and also by external thought leaders and instructors. The sessions are designed to expose high-potential women to in-depth business views; help them understand all parts of the business; and demonstrate how they will help drive success in transforming the company to meet all of our key priorities over the next five years.”

By the way, training efforts needn’t focus exclusively on rising women. They also can be useful for those who choose among the candidates—e.g., by sensitizing top executives to their unconscious biases. Eli Lilly Director of Global Diversity and HR Communications Janice Chavers is proud of a classroom program that gives leaders “tools and tips to include everybody on their team…The shy woman who doesn’t speak up may have the best ideas, so it’s teaching the leader how to engage that person.”

Lateral Moves and Work/Life Balance

Career support goes beyond maintaining or promoting; it also must include moving laterally. This is especially understood by 3M, a company driven by invention. VP of Global HR Business Operations Jon Ruppel notes that 3M’s philosophy is: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. If you give people the room they need, they innovate.” As a result, if a woman is interested in a career change within the company, “we offer different types of project-based experiences so she can dabble in that space to see if there’s a good fit.” If that works out, 3M provides “stretch assignments” for her to further develop. And if those results are promising, 3M helps pay for internal and/or university training for the staffer to fully learn the new skills—which might even occur in a different country, leveraging 3M’s global presence.

Also critical, especially for woman with children, is a healthy work/life balance. FleishmanHillard Chief of Staff Lisa Moehlenkamp (who’s raised three kids) says, “Part-time work options, leaves of absence, sabbaticals, we have all of those. But the thing that makes the most difference is just an attitude here about getting done what you need to get done in the way that allows you to integrate your work and life in the most effective way. I have been sitting on the sideline of a soccer game with my earbud in my ear listening to a conference call for work…I don’t mind being on call in the evening, because if I need to follow up with my son during the day while he’s away at school, I have the flexibility to do that.”

Speaking of school, one other way a company can ensure diversity is to reach out to female talent early. A prime example is Microsoft’s “DigiGirlz” program, which Executive VP of Global Business Development Peggy Johnson explains, “helps young girls ages 14 to 18 get and stay interested in technology, and has grown and expanded to more than 16 countries. It’s a talent pool we started cultivating 15 years ago. These young girls have stayed with technical programs all through that time because of the support of DigiGirlz; now we’re actually hiring them.”

If you’re hesitant about the expense of such programs, consider the words of Edward Jones Principal of Client Strategies Group Penny Pennington: “We consider training an investment, not a cost.”

An argument can be made for having the same attitude about using training to attract, retain, and nourish female executives.

Debbie Wooldridge is CEO of outsource training company ttcInnovations ( Hy Bender is the bestselling author of 16 books and also develops books for clients ( Wooldridge and Bender host diversity podcast site The Millennial Career Playbook (, where you can hear the individual interviews they conducted with each of the companies quoted in this article.