the next generation

06.25.134:45 AM ET

CEO Dads Want Their Daughters in the Boardroom

The upper rungs of big companies are still filled with mostly men, but top CEOs are starting to be inspired by their own daughters to shatter those C-suite glass ceilings.

This isn’t your grandma’s boardroom, but it could be your daughter’s. The most powerful and driven advocates pushing for gender equality in management are turning out to be top executives at companies like Coca-Cola and Kraft who look at their young daughters and envision them having equal opportunities to spearhead a board meeting one day.

This generation of top executives, many of whom entered their respective fields when female leadership was rare, has seen diversity spread through the workforce at the lower and midlevel rungs—but not much change is happening up top. As women leave men in the dust with a 10-point lead in college enrollment numbers and search for opportunities for employment, it’s become clear for fathers of young girls that equality in pay and promotion is vital for their daughters’ future. This is especially apparent to fathers of the executive breed.

“It used to be: Do we really have a problem here? Now it’s clear we have a problem. Just look at the numbers. They haven’t changed in 20 years. The issue now is: How do we solve it?” says Fritzi Woods, the CEO of Women’s Foodservice Forum, an organization that helps the industry—America’s second-largest employer—create a foundation for women’s advancement into executive roles. And in the past few years, Woods has seen effort on the part of male executives to incorporate women into their top leadership, due in no small part to members of the C-suite (CEO, CFO, COO) hoping to pave the way for their young daughters. “There’s something different when it’s personal,” she notes.

Fred Paglia, the president of North American division of Kraft Foods and a board member of WFF, says the increased adrenaline he put into the effort since having daughters is only human nature. “My girls are 14 and 12, and to be genuine with you, I wake up every day and look into their eyes before I leave for work and try to make the path a little easier for them. What father wouldn’t want to do that?” Paglia says.

Many executives can rattle off their company’s programs to promote and foster female leadership, but for those with daughters, the issue becomes intimate: ensuring their kids will have the same opportunity they had to get into top management. “I think there’s an aha moment that a lot of men have, particularly when they have daughters,” Woods says. “Now men hear their children speak about discrimination or barriers they’re running into simply because they’re a woman.”

These charged feelings turn into tangible results within a company. In 2011 a study crunched numbers from 6,320 private-sector Dutch firms over 12 years and found that found that after male CEOs have daughters, the average salary for a female employee within the company rises and the gender gap began to close. This past January, the study, titled “Like Daughter, Like Father: How Women’s Wages Change When CEOs Have Daughters,” was presented to the American Economic Association.

“I think about them excelling, and it now more than ever focuses me,” says Bill Hornbuckle, the president of MGM Resorts International, who has two daughters in their early 20s. “I wouldn’t be truthful in telling you I was feeling that a decade ago.” Now, Hornbuckle says, he advises his daughters to really evaluate their potential employers and make a judgement based on the company’s programs for, and track record of, promoting women. “Nothing happens without a sincere focus on it, both individually and collectively,” he says.

There are plenty of power players investing that sort of genuine attention and attributing it to their kids. Recently, when Kellogg president Brad Davidson was awarded for promoting female leadership at the annual WFF summit, he cited his two daughters as inspiration. Another big name to expend a seemingly tireless effort on behalf of women and girls is Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent. “I would like to see my daughter flourish professionally in a world that is more just and equitable for women, and where the benefits of diversity are fully appreciated,” he wrote about his daughter, Selin, in an op-ed for The Huffington Post in 2010. Last year at The Daily Beast’s Women in the World Summit he explained that his 2020 program, which seeks to promote gender equality both inside and outside the company, boosted Coca-Cola’s management team from 22 to 23 percent women to 40 percent in three and a half years.

Hornbuckle points out that 43 percent of management ranks at MGM is female and calls it a sign of the “maturing of our industry” that the gap is slowly closing. But there’s still much work to be done. “Women have been trained and conditioned in not advocating for themselves,” Woods notes. And overall, statistics show the outcome of that. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, women employed full time earn 79 percent of the weekly salary that men do. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that 84 percent of women think men are paid better for similar work, while only two thirds of men say the same.

For all the discouraging statistics, there are plenty of success stories. Like daughters who turn out as well as Nicole Feld, who, along with her two sisters, has followed in her family’s footsteps to Feld Entertainment, where her father is CEO. The 35-year-old now produces the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shows. “When you live in a house filled with women, I think that helps you understand better why female executives would be equally effective and efficient in a business as male executives,” she says of her father. “Sometimes it has to do with what your household is like more than what your workplace is like.”

But isn’t it a bit discouraging that CEOs with daughters are most receptive to equalizing fair wages once it personally affects them? “It’s frustrating at times, absolutely,” says Wood. “But I’m actually more encouraged than I am frustrated.” As politicians and talking heads debate fair-wage laws and whether female breadwinners are harming their children, questions are moving away from whether women can succeed to evaluating whether women have the same opportunity to do so as men and what factors contribute to ensuring they do.

In the end, it just makes good business sense. “You can’t ignore it,” Woods says. “It’s like saying, ‘I have a company, but I’m going to ignore technology.’” The currently male-dominated C-suite is watching their daughters, observing their workforce, and catching on. “Where the economic gain comes is how you staff up. If you end up staffing up and not looking like what the world looks like, then you’re suboptimized,” Kraft’s Paglia says. “I think we’re on the right course. The only way it’s going to get where it needs to be is [with] an absolute maniacal commitment.” A father's fervor can go a long way.