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Top women execs leaving Northwestern Mutual: What does it mean for corporate Milwaukee?

(May 20, 2019, Milwaukee Business Journal) The departure of several high-profile women executives from Northwestern Mutual is a reminder of the still-limited ranks of women in high corporate places and whether Wisconsin corporations are making sufficient progress recruiting and retaining them.

Two women in Northwestern Mutual’s C-suite as well as two other women who held high-level roles are leaving the company, the Milwaukee Business Journal reported. CEO John Schlifske assured employees the company remains committed to recruiting and advancing women in its executive ranks and he told employees in an email the four exits “are independent and unrelated decisions.”

Despite Schlifske’s statements, the loss of women in the C-suite at a major company can be dispiriting to Milwaukee-area professional women’s groups that are pressing for more gender diversity in management and boardrooms.

Jen Dirks, president and CEO of professional women’s organization Tempo Milwaukee, says it’s jarring when she hears news like that from Northwestern Mutual and other local companies.

“It’s discouraging that we continue to lose talent,” said Dirks. “That’s a struggle for Milwaukee in general.”

More Milwaukee-area businesses need to “fall in line” and demonstrate their commitment to gender and racial diversity in the executive ranks, Dirks said. She wants more businesses to join the cause of creating an environment that is friendly to women executives and retaining them in their positions.

Milwaukee Women inc (MWi), which is a group of professional women seeking more women on business boards of directors, agrees with Dirks that women continue to be underrepresented in corporate leadership, said the organization’s chair Lindsay Hammerer.

“MWi will continue to work with Northwestern Mutual and all Wisconsin companies to change the face and quality of leadership in the Wisconsin business community by increasing the number of females in corporate leadership as well as on boards of directors,” said Hammerer, who is an audit partner at KPMG LLP in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Women inc published a report in 2018 showing the number of women executives at the 50 largest publicly traded companies in Wisconsin. Northwestern Mutual is privately held so doesn’t appear on the list.

Ten southeast Wisconsin public companies ranked in the top 15 of the list for retaining three or more women in executive positions.

The list was led by Sussex-based Quad/Graphics Inc. (NYSE: QUAD) with seven. Quad was followed by three companies with five each: Johnson Outdoors Inc. (Nasdaq: JOUT) of Racine and ManpowerGroup Inc. (NYSE: MAN) and Weyco Group Inc. (Nasdaq: WEYS), both of Milwaukee.

Emily Phillips, board president with Milwaukee-area women’s group Professional Dimensions, said it’s important to note that Northwestern Mutual is one Milwaukee company that has developed comprehensive strategies to advance women.

“I do know NM puts their money where their mouth is in investing in women in leadership,” said Phillips, of the Drosner Phillips Ristau Group at Robert W. Baird and Co. in Milwaukee.

It’s likely that NM is losing some high-profile women due to the company’s success in recruiting them, Phillips said.

“As we see more women join the executive ranks, we see more departures,” Phillips said. “They gain more experiences and become more desirable. Other companies will snap people up.”

Metro Milwaukee is not unique in terms of the percentage of women in C-suite positions continuing to be dramatically lower than that of men.

A study in early 2019 by organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry examined the percentage of women in top jobs by title and by industry, according to Milwaukee Business Journal sister website Bizwomen.

The analysis found that across the most prominent C-suite titles, an average of 25% of the top leaders are women, up slightly from 23% a year ago. The smallest percentage of women occupy the top position, with only 6% serving as chief executive officer (CEO), the same percentage as last year.

Dirks suggests Milwaukee-area companies that want to boost their commitment to women in the executive ranks look at the examples of companies like Quad.

“What are they doing and what can we learn from them?” Dirks said.


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