Despite years of progress by women in the workforce – they now occupy more than 40% of all managerial positions in the U. S. – within the C-suite they are by far more scarce. When you look at Fortune 500 companies, the most highly paid executives with titles such as chairman, chief executive officer, president and COO, only 6% are women. More importantly, only 2% of the CEOs are women, and only 15% of the seats on the boards of directors are held by women.
Back in 1986 the Wall Street Journal coined the phrase “glass ceiling.” In an article by Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt wrote: “Even those few women who rose steadily through the ranks eventually crashed into an invisible barrier. The executive suite seemed within their grasp, but they just couldn’t break through the glass ceiling.”
Admittedly, “glass ceiling” is a catchy phrase, but is it really the reason why women don’t make it into the C-suite? Or is it more likely due to the sum of a variety of obstacles that come into play along the trajectory of a woman’s career that is the real reason?
While there was a period when the barriers were absolute, times have changed and the glass ceiling metaphor no longer holds the ring of truth. We have female CEOs, company presidents, presidents of universities, governors, etc. In addition, the metaphor implies that women and men have equal access to entry and mid-level positions, when in reality they don’t. The glass ceiling doesn’t take into consideration the complexity and variety of challenges women often face in their leadership journey.
The truth is that women aren’t turned away just as they reach the pinnacle of their career. They disappear in numerous ways leading up to that stage. The path to the C-suite is not a simple or direct path, but one that requires persistence, awareness of how they’re progressing, and an ability to analyze the obstacles that lie ahead. For women who aspire to top leadership positions the routes exist, but just like a labyrinth, they are full of twists and turns – some that are expected and others that come without warning or direction.
Remnants of Prejudice
It’s been clearly established that men as a whole still have the benefit of faster promotions and higher wages. Here in the U. S. women who are employed full time earn 84 cents for every dollar earned by men. Is this a result of discrimination? One of the most comprehensive studies conducted by the
U. S. Government Accountability Office found that women’s wages remained lower than men’s even after taking into account and adjusting wages for all of the ways men and women are different (i.e. gender and other characteristics).
Resistance to Women’s Leadership
What’s behind this discrimination? In large part it’s due to a set of widely held conscious and unconscious associations about women, men and leaders. Women are associated with traits such as being affectionate, sympathetic and kind that embody compassion and a feeling of community. Men, on the other hand, are associated with qualities that convey control and assertion, such as being ambitious, aggressive and self confident. Most people see these latter traits as effective leadership.
Consequently, women leaders find themselves in a Catch 22 situation. If they exhibit traits typically associated with males, they’ll likely be considered “too aggressive” and resented for the position they hold. Studies that have tracked reactions to men and women displaying different types of dominant behavior have consistently shown that this behavior is more damaging to women than it is to men.
Women often struggle to develop an effective and appropriate leadership style, one that strikes a balance between the “communal” qualities people want to see in women with the “mover and shaker” qualities people think leaders need to be successful. Women aren’t “men in skirts,” and there is the possibility that women who behave like men will be penalized. It’s not easy for a woman to strike that authentic balance as a leader.
Family Life Demands
Women continue to be the ones who interrupt their careers, work part-time or take more days off to raise children. As a result, they have fewer years of job experience and fewer hours of employment per year which in turn slows their advancement and reduces their income. While men are increasingly sharing housework and child rearing, the bulk of domestic work still lands on women’s plates. In the U. S. married women devote an average of 19 hours a week to housework while married men contribute 11 hours.
One of the biggest problems that occurs for so many women who are trying to balance work and family is that it leaves little time for socializing with colleagues and building professional networks. The “social capital” that accumulates is critical. Studies show that fast track managers spend more time and effort socializing and interacting with clients, and social capital may be even more necessary to advancement than how well an individual does their job.
Part 2 to follow next week.