For over 40 years, a number of studies have been conducted to explain the lack of women leaders in executive management (C-suite) positions at Fortune 500 companies. Research from exploring the reasons why women are underrepresented in top leadership positions to recommendations on how to tackle the problem have been published. However, despite decades of extensive research and proposed solutions, the gender gap in executive leadership remain. Why is this? Let’s explore these explanations and review the contradictions, inconsistencies and ambiguities of these findings.
Theories and ExplanationsU.S. Department of Education reports indicated that women obtained 60% of graduate degrees, were almost half of the labor force, and held over half of all management positions. Nonetheless, women trailed the number of men who held senior leadership positions (14%) or who were CEO (4%) (NCES, 2012; Catalyst, 2014). Researchers have proposed five main theories as reasons for the disparity in the number of women in C-suite positions. These theories include: Glass Ceiling Phenomenon; Career Pipeline Barrier; Genetic Predisposition; Economic Incompatibility and Family Work Conflict Bias.
Glass Ceiling PhenomenonNone knows specifically who came up with the term glass ceiling; however, Gay Bryant used the term in a 1984 Working Woman article to describe the problem of women who were stuck in middle management after advancing in companies. The term resonated with women and other journalists began to use the term to describe women’s precarious career situation. Researchers began to conduct studies to determine whether the glass ceiling existed. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Labor commissioned the Glass Ceiling Commission to study whether a glass ceiling exists. The commission determined that an artificial barrier does exists to prevent women from advancing to top managerial positions. Five barriers were identified: Societal, governmental, internal business and structural business barriers. Societal barriers may include prejudice and bias of cultural, gender and color based on differences relative to opportunity and attainment. Governmental barriers encompassed the government’s lack of consistent monitoring for compliance with existing laws. Internal business barriers comprised of companies who promoted within; of which politics could play a role in obtaining a promotion or job. Differences in gender communication styles may also hinder women from obtaining a leadership position. Scholars have discovered that the glass ceiling is related to gender bias (Cotter et al, 2001). This initial research has expanded to study other theories including the Glass Cliff Phenomenon, the theory that women are selected to run organizations when the company is at a high risk of failing (Haslam & Ryan, 2008); and Glass Labyrinth, the concept that women must overcome a number of barriers to reach the C-Suite (Eagly & Carli, 2007).
Career Pipeline BarriersCareer Pipeline Barrier is the argument that “historically, few women enroll in preparatory programs, such as a MBA and law school” (Wolfinger, Mason & Gouldens, 2008). These researchers inferred that when enough qualified women are in the pipeline, women will eventually assume top leadership positions within the organizations, thereby increasing the increase number of women in senior management. Statistics have proven this correlation to be false. The number of women attaining advanced degrees have significantly increased, and the number of women holding middle management positions have increased, but the number of women CEO’s has not (Catalyst, 2014).
Genetic PredispositionGenetic predisposition is the notion that women are not genetically predisposed to top management roles and therefore opt-out of running for top management positions. The thought is that men and women are just different. While men prefer the high-stakes environment, women choose less challenging positions or leave altogether due to their desire to satisfy the role of the homemaker (Byron, 2005). Women who work in organizations that embrace this type of thinking receive a lack of mentoring, are assigned dead-end jobs, experience double standards in performance evaluations, and have little to no internal communication networks (Hoobler, Lemon & Wayne, 2011).
Economic IncompatibilityTechnology and globalization has produced a new 24/7 economy; requiring leaders to be available at a moment’s notice. This type of economy is not compatible to raising a family. As more women than men are responsible for the majority of the housework, this thinking impedes women from obtaining or maintaining their job since the manager may not consider women for leadership positions.
Family Work Conflict BiasThe family work conflict bias is an idea that being a female signals to a manager that her family will interfere with her work; regardless whether she has support from a spouse, parents or nanny – whether she has children or not. Scholars found this bias was prevalent in both male and female recruiters. Coined, “Think male, think leader”, this theory is based on the assumption that being a woman is incompatible with being a leader (Hoobler, Lemmon & Wayne, 2011).
Contradictions, Inconsistencies and AmbiguitiesThe core assumption in each of these theories is that being a woman is incompatible to being a leader (Hoobler, Lemmon, & Wayne, 2011). Researchers have identified several solutions that may increase the number of women in senior leadership positions. Solutions included:
- Companies should intentionally seek to hire a diverse workforce;
- Create leadership development programs that meet the unique needs of aspiring women leaders;
- Mentoring and networking opportunities,
- Support from a firm’s senior leadership and the board in which they create a diversity climate within the organizational culture, and
- For senior leaders to sponsor women on advancing up the corporate ladder (Hoobler, Lemmon & Wayne, 2011; Zhou & Park, 2013).