Women in Executive Leadership:
Now Comes the Hard Part

The senior vice president of corporate communications at Aflac on women in the workplace and why gender equality helps everyone.

By Catherine Hernandez-Blades

Catalyst now reports that women comprise only 9.5 percent of top wage earners in the S&P 500. A 2015 CNNMoney analysis shows that women hold only 14.2 percent of the top-five leadership positions at those same companies. This is in spite of the fact that women represent more than 50 percent of the consumer pool and nearly half of the S&P 500 workforce.

Such statistics continue to frustrate those making even sincere efforts to address disparities. For businesses with the will to help balance the proportion of women in senior leadership roles, a generally accepted set of best practices is emerging. Companies making gains in female leadership seem to be following similar scripts, regardless of industry:

  • Top-down commitment. Companies that build gender diversity successfully at the leadership level are twice as likely to place gender diversity among the three top priorities on their strategic agenda, according to the just-published McKinsey & Company report, Reinventing The Workplace for Greater Gender Diversity. When the CEO “gets it,” repeats the urgency, and holds direct reports accountable, the message cascades Culture changes. Sending personal letters to each top leader at Manpower Group, CEO Jonas Prising outlines his company gender goals in a way that is getting everyone’s attention.
  • Over the top. Having women on the board of directors not only encourages more women to pursue executive positions, but also provides the opportunity to facilitate real change within companies that help women advance.
  • Tie it to compensation. Accountability is key. Dan Amos, CEO of Aflac, once withheld all promotions at a company division because there were no women on the list of candidates for advancement.
  • Address unconscious bias. Even the most well-meaning decision-makers can discriminate unconsciously. A Workforce Institute posting forwards the example of Kimberly-Clark’s Rule of Two: for appointments at the VP level and above, leaders must bring three candidates for consideration, and no more than two of them should have a similar demographic profile.
  • Show, don’t tell. Women aspire to senior corporate leadership positions at companies where women are senior corporate leaders. Currently, 35 percent of Aflac’s U.S. senior management team is female. Nineteen years on Fortune’s list of Best Places to Work is no accident.

Building a culture of inclusion and diversity, especially when it comes to women, is in some companies a mission relegated to the human resources department. But Corporate America has moved beyond the table stakes of once-progressive policies, like helping with child care and elder care, paid parental leave and flexible schedules. Cultural change takes time, awareness and action. It must be part of the strategic blueprint of a business.

It isn’t just a challenge in the United States. Shinzō Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, has a national goal of having women occupy 30 percent of leadership in Japanese businesses by 2020, an aggressive target based on current numbers. Following Abe’s lead, Aflac, which earns the majority of its revenue in Japan, hosts forums with key stakeholders to discuss and examine strategies by which women may be elevated to more executive business positions and then acts on them.

True gender equality in the workplace may now be at hand, but it will take the earnest efforts of everyone in business to make it a reality.


Catherine Hernandez-Blades joined Aflac in 2014 as senior vice president of Corporate Communications where she oversees all of the company’s integrated corporate communications functions. Prior to coming to Aflac, she was chief communications and marketing officer at Flextronics, a multinational technological manufacturer. She also served as vice president of communications and public affairs at Raytheon Company’s Space and Airborne Systems business unit and held various international communications-related leadership positions at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

With more than two decades of leadership experience, Hernandez-Blades is an established thought leader on corporate reputation, corporate social responsibility and communications measurement. She is the 2017 World Communications Forum Davos “Relations of the Future” awardee; a 2017 PR-Week Hall of Femme inductee; and a recipient of the 2017 Gold Bulldog CSR/Sustainability Executive of the Year award. She was also named one of the Top 10 Corporate Executives of the Year by LATINA Style magazine; earned the Gold Bulldog Star of PR in the Corporate Communications category, as voted on by the press in 2015 and 2016; and received PR News’ awards for Top Women in PR and Diversity in PR in 2015 and 2016, as well as PR Team Leader of the Year in 2015. Hernandez-Blades received the 2016 Silver Stevie award for the Maverick of the Year category and the 2015 Bronze Stevie award for Woman of the Year in Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations from the American Business Association. She has also been recognized by the National Diversity Council with their Most Powerful and Influential Women Award.

Hernandez-Blades is the former chair and current board of directors member for Operation Homefront. She is an officer with The Seminar and a member of the Arthur W. Page Society — two highly respected, invitation-only, communications industry organizations. A past member of the Marketing 50/M50, she has recently been named to the Communications 50/C50 and serves on the Communications Advisory Board for the Ethisphere Institute. She has been recognized by ExecRank as a Top 30 CMO and is an Accredited Business Communicator. She has contributed to three books, including “The World’s Foremost Authorities on Marketing — Top CMOs Share What They Know Best,” “Superbrands” and PR News’ Corporate Social Responsibility Guidebook. Most recently, her articles on corporate social responsibility have been featured in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Ethisphere magazine and PR News.

Hernandez-Blades earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in mass communications from the University of Louisiana, Lafayette and is a Loyola University Environmental Communications Fellow.