Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — The food and beverage manufacturing industry has a gender diversity problem in the c-suite. Food and beverage companies have fewer upper-level female executives when compared to other industries.

At first glance, the industry’s track record of promoting women to the highest levels appears encouraging. Numerous women have risen to chief executive officer at companies including PepsiCo, Inc.; Archer Daniels Midland Co.; Mondelez International, Inc.; Land O’Lakes; The Hershey Co.; Campbell Soup Co.; Kraft Foods, Inc.; and Sara Lee Corp. during the 2000s.

But an annual study from the consultancy McKinsey & Company titled “Women in the workplace 2019” shows the industry’s apparent success rate masks a deficit of female representation at upper levels across the food manufacturing sector. Since 2015, the first year of the study, there have been improvements in female representation at senior levels across all industries. In 2019, 21 per cent, (up from 17 per cent in 2015) of c-suite executives were female among the 329 companies that participated in the survey. That figure is 16 per cent in food and beverage manufacturing. At the senior vice-president level, the gap is 26 per cent for all industries vs. 22 per cent for food and beverage.

At lower management levels, the percentage of women executives in food and beverage manufacturing is consistent with all industries. It is at the threshold of corporate leadership where the gap in female representation between food and beverage manufacturing and all other industries emerges.

Holding women back from advancement isn’t a “glass ceiling”; it’s a “broken rung” on the corporate ladder, McKinsey said. Fixing the broken rung is key to achieving greater gender diversity in management.

Yet prospects for solving the problem are remote because human resources (H.R.) leaders underestimate its scope. When surveyed, more than half of H.R. leaders said they believe their company will reach gender parity in leadership over the next 10 years. In reality, gender parity is out of reach so long as the current trends persist.

Key to getting closer to gender parity more rapidly is recognizing gender bias in the workplace, according to McKinsey. Reducing the occurrence of gender bias will require companies to set goals for placing more women into first-level management positions, requiring diverse slates for hiring and promotions, putting evaluators through unconscious bias training and establishing clear evaluation criteria.

Such recommendations are achievable if there is a firm commitment from senior leaders and if they enact policies that ensure business managers follow through. Yet the McKinsey study showed that while 73 per cent of senior leaders said they are committed to gender diversity, only 59 per cent of managers expressed a similar commitment. More troubling, 46 per cent of senior leaders said they are actively working to improve gender diversity in their companies, but only 16 per cent of managers said they are actively doing so.

These figures suggest progress has been made over the last 20 years but also highlight a gap between the stated policies of corporate senior leadership and how those policies are implemented throughout a business. Put another way, repairing the broken rung on the corporate ladder may require ensuring policies articulated by corporate leadership are implemented throughout an organization.