Companies That Are Getting It Right

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As discussion of gender equity hits the workplace, thereís some good news! Here are five companies that are relentlessly working to level the playing field and narrow the leadership gap.

By Carolyn M. Brown

All eyes are on women in the workplace as issues around sexual harassment and equal pay continue to grab headlines. The problem extends beyond Hollywood into Corporate America, where there isn’t just a pay gap but a leadership gap. High-potential women advance more slowly than their male peers, in both career progression and pay, even though they employ career management strategies as men do, according to Catalyst, the leading national organization for research on woman’s leadership and equity.

Women make up 47 percent of the US workforce. Yet, they represent 25 percent of executive- and senior-level officers and managers. At Fortune 1000 companies, women hold 20.8 percent of board seats and only 54, or 5.4 percent, of CEO roles, of which just two are women of color. One is PG&E’s CEO and president, Geisha Williams, who is Latina; the other is PepsiCo’s chairwoman and CEO, Indra Nooyi, an Indian American.

So how do employers get more women into the upper ranks? Research underlines the need to foster female advancement throughout the corporate structure through formalized development programs with buy-in from senior management. These practices include pairing women with mentors, who provide feedback and coaching, and with sponsors, who use their positions of authority and influence to help women gain access to vital experiences and senior executives in the organization. Many companies also support employee resource groups (ERGs) and employee networks (ENs) that advocate for equal pay and equal opportunity.

Each year Catalyst hosts a conference for ERG leaders from major organizations. Successful ERGs provide their members professional growth routes such as special training, high-visibility opportunities, and networking with senior leaders and potential sponsors to foster bonds, says Katherine Giscombe, PhD, Catalyst’s vice president and women of color practitioner, Global Member Services. Hands-on leadership development programs must provide women “hot jobs”—high-visibility assignments that involve a large cross-functional team of employees and impact revenue, adds Giscombe. Organizations also must ensure that certain women aren’t overlooked based on unconscious racial bias. For example, women of color generally aren’t given second chances when they make a mistake, compared to majority employees, and for them a mistake then becomes a setback versus a learning experience, she explains.

Many companies have practices and policies in place geared toward the professional needs of their female employees. Diversity Woman culled a short list of the nation’s biggest employers who are getting it right in advancing women.


This telecommunications giant supports one of the largest female-focused groups by far. The Women of AT&T (WOA) ERG is over 24,000 strong, with 39 chapters across the country. WOA was instrumental in crafting a robust mentoring program to help develop talent and to facilitate exposure of high-potential women to upper management. More than 72,000 women work at AT&T, accounting for 32 percent of all employees and 35 percent of managers.
WOA became laser-focused on its signature mentoring circles among other core areas. “We also recognized early how critically important it is to have men as allies within the organization and along the journey,” says Theresa Spralling, emeritus CEO for Women of AT&T National. “I am proud to note that our membership extends across race, sexual orientation, cultures, and gender.”

“We have frontline employees working side by side with senior leaders, vice presidents, and officers,” says Corey Anthony, senior vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer. ERGs have become a vehicle to identify top talent. “We engage the Women of AT&T to help us identity the most talented women in our business,” Corey adds. “We look at the people who are taking leadership roles within ERGs, and they get to interact with [our CEO] and senior leaders.”

AT&T has 12 ERGs and 13 ENs, with a combined membership just shy of 130,000 active employees. A unique factor—all AT&T’s ERGs are 501(c)(3) charitable organizations. While they are employee run and operate separately from AT&T, they receive corporate funding. ENs are employee-run groups that address the professional and personal interests of their members. The AT&T Women of Technology EN is focused on the unique needs and challenges of its female employees in STEM in four areas: mentoring, technical acumen, unconscious bias, and engagement of male advocacy.

A preeminent event inside AT&T is its annual ERG summit, which Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson and most of his direct reports attend and where thousands of employees gather to improve the abilities of ERGs to recruit and develop talent and to discuss the progress of key corporate initiatives.

Ernst & Young

As women rise up the ranks at Ernst & Young, the company provides education, mentoring, sponsorship, and networking opportunities geared toward their professional needs. The multinational professional services firm, with more than 250,000 employees worldwide, touts that the number of women in top executive management positions has increased by more than 20 percent due to its focused efforts. They include EY’s Professional Women’s Network, Inclusiveness Leadership Program, and Career Watch committee.

The Professional Women’s Network hosts networking events and offers exposure to senior management. The Inclusiveness Leadership Program pairs high-performing partners and principals with an executive coach. Career Watch focuses on pipeline development.

Making sure female employees receive candid performance feedback and career advice has been a focal point of the Career Watch committees, which comprise local leadership. When it’s time for reviews and promotions, EY wants senior management “asking the same kinds of questions and applying the same kind of criteria to all candidates to avoid eliminating people because of one preconceived notion or another,” explains Kerrie MacPherson, a leading partner in EY’s Financial Services Practice and executive sponsor of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program.

“We have learned that absent of this [practice], unconscious biases have a tendency to come into play,” says MacPherson. “One of the things we started talking about that is helpful is whether the attributes that we think are necessary for a particular role or opportunity are really preferences or are requirements.”

MacPherson points out the empirical evidence showing that women and minorities tend to be overmentored and undersponsored. Accordingly, EY’s Inclusiveness Leadership Program is designed to drive sponsorship. High-performing women who have been identified as future leaders partner with a very senior member of the firm or someone on the board who has a vested interest ensuring these women have access to equitable opportunities.
“It is an exciting program that has evolved over the years. In order for us to deliver great solutions to our clients (that reflect all of our society) we need to have multiple experiences and perspectives around the table. This includes educational background, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation,” says MacPherson.

Kaiser Permanente

Bernard J. Tyson, Kaiser Permanente’s first African American chairman and CEO, is fully committed
to creating a diverse and inclusive environment at all levels. Kaiser Permanente, one of America’s leading health-care providers and not-for-profit health plans, is focused on development, advancement, and leadership opportunities for women and minorities. Women make up nearly 75 percent of the workforce, minorities nearly 65 percent. Nearly half of its executives and more than 35 percent of its board of directors are women.

Kaiser Permanente’s National Diversity Agenda has helped build a racially diverse workforce in addition to advancing women through development programs and affinity groups. Kaiser Permanente employees and physicians lead programs across eight national business resource groups (BRGs), including Women Empowered @ KP (WE@KP) which empowers employees to develop through workforce, community programs, and resources with a focus on women’s unique aspects.

In addition, BRGs craft outreach around job opportunities across their constituents, says Dr. Sally Saba, vice president of operations, performance, and compliance for the National Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Office. Each group has an executive sponsor, someone very high in the organization. “Last year, we were trying to develop a proposal to take to our national executive team around what to do for our Latina employees who need to advance. We went to our Latina BRG with a certain set of (survey) questions,” says Dr. Saba, who has a unique worldwide perspective—she is an Egyptian American Muslim.

Kaiser Permanente is activating the BRGs to shore up its diversity efforts and to propel the advancement of female employees. Kaiser Permanente understands the importance of creating a comprehensive approach to talent acquisition, development, and promotion. This is why leadership made a commitment to formalize Kaiser Permanente’s mentoring and sponsorship programs.

Equally, Kaiser Permanente’s CEO has made a public commitment to pay equity. Says Dr. Saba, “There is always work under way to review our pay portfolios and compensation to make sure we are where we want to be.”


KPMG monitors the challenges women face to provide a clear path for high-potential talent to rise to the top. Women comprise nearly 50 percent of 189,000 employees at KMPG’s financial audit, tax, and advisory services.
The KPMG Women’s Advisory Board (WAB) has been instrumental in proposing initiatives that enhance career opportunities. One of WAB’s biggest successes is the KPMG Network of Women (KNOW). Developed by WAB and delivered by KNOW’s local chapters, KPMG’s Executive Leadership Institute for Women was established to move more women into C-suite positions. To date, the institute has graduated roughly 1,200 women executives from the yearlong leadership development program.

“It was designed specifically for KPMG’s women partners and senior managers, and their peers in the marketplace,” says Chief Diversity Officer Sue Townsen. “The program equips participants with the practical skills needed to develop as leaders while providing the opportunity to build strong relationships through cohorts.” Townsen, who chairs KPMG’s national Inclusion and Diversity Executive Council, works alongside US Chair and CEO Lynne Doughtie.

In addition, the Stacy Lewis Rising Stars program for KPMG’s high-performing, high-potential female senior managers, managing directors, and directors helps form career-enhancing bonds. The KPMG Future Leaders Program inspires and develops new generations of women leaders. The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit serve as catalysts to empower women on and off the golf course.
KMPG also offers the Leadership Essentials Series for African American, Asian Pacific Islander, and Hispanic employees. This platform helps women of color gain visibility as facilitators or keynote speakers. Equally important, the series offers access to senior leaders attending the sessions who can serve as coaches, mentors, and sponsors.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers

Gender equality is an economic and social imperative at PwC, which has a network of firms in 157 countries with more than 208,000 people. In the United States, 48 percent of PwC’s 39,000 employees are women. Initiatives to help recruit, retain, develop, and advance women into leadership positions include Women’s Networking Circles, Women Upfront, and Breakthrough Leadership program.

Aspire to Lead, part of PwC’s Women’s Leadership Series, targets university students and professionals. It features an annual global video webcast with top female executives and runs leadership skills-building workshops year-round. Women’s Networking Circles arrange regular meetings for small groups of employees to discuss career advancement using forums and educational materials, including videos from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s

PwC monitors its progress in terms of processes and human capital practices designed to identify women who are high potential and to ensure they have effectual coaching and sponsorship. “We think sponsorship is so important for our women,” says Mike Dillon, PwC’s chief diversity and inclusion officer and a member of the LGBT Partner Advisory Board.

Take, for instance, Breakthrough Leadership, an intensive two-day leadership development experience for high-potential women and their partner sponsors. The women, with their sponsors, explore ways to enhance their skills, negotiate work and family responsibilities, and gain greater visibility or exposure, says Jennifer Allyn, diversity strategy leader. US Chairman and Senior Partner Tim Ryan leads PwC’s diversity efforts and encourages men to join the women’s movement for parity. PwC is an IMPACT partner with the United Nations effort around HeForShe, an initiative that aims to mobilize 1 billion males in support of gender equality. DW

Carolyn M. Brown is an award-winning journalist, author, and playwright. She is the coauthor of the career book Climb: Taking Every Step with Conviction, Courage, and Calculated Risk to Achieve a Thriving Career and a Successful Life (Open Lens, May 2018).

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