Explanations and Contradictions For Why More Women Are Not in the C-Suite

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 Explanations

U.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 Phenomenon

None 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 Barriers

Career 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 Predisposition

Genetic 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).

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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 Incompatibility

Technology 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 Bias

The 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 Ambiguities

The 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).

Even with extensive research and solutions, statistics continue to show that women hold less than one-fifth of executive management positions (Catalyst, 2014).

What could be the reason for the incongruence in the number of top women leaders versus the solutions for increasing gender equality in the workplace?Perhaps one should consider the framework within the system: The succession planning process.

Corporate Succession Planning

Succession has been practiced since early history with families and royalty training the next generation to run the family business or kingdom. Modern corporate succession planning began in the 1970s as the term “replacement planning”; based on Mahler’s 1973 Executive Continuity. In the book, Mahler described how leading organizations prepared for leadership succession. Using GE as a case study, Mahler detailed how the company replaced their key leaders. GE became the benchmark for corporate succession and other companies began to replicate GE’s process.

The replacement process consisted of confidential short-term planning that included identifying specific job requirements, experience and technical skills as discerned by the incumbent CEO, who selected his replacement (Kessler, 2002). By the mid-1980’s, many of the leading companies implemented programs similar to GE. The succession planning process began to evolve with the organization’s strategic focus on longer term planning by designing the career moves of certain executives. This included assessing leadership talent, identifying those with the highest potential early in their careers and then develop their skills and give them stretch assignments to prepare for executive leadership.

Using the competency model, high potential candidates were assessed by whether that person possess specific competencies. These high potentials also received feedback from peers, subordinates and supervisors; wherewith a leadership development plan was customized specifically for the candidate (Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, n.d.).

The problem with corporate succession planning is that the process of identifying high potential leaders may be gender-biased (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Virick & Greer, 2012; Zhou & Park, 2013). Women are at a disadvantage in obtaining leadership opportunities as “more men hold the position to hire applicants for high status jobs” (Bosak and Sczesny, 2011, p. 240).

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Why is This Important?

The reason for this post is to bring awareness and to equip women with this information so they can create a strategy to overcome these challenges when designing her career path. As our clients get clear on their career path and create a strategy to excel, they must become aware of workplace challenges.

We understand that the under-representation of women in senior leadership positions is a systemic issue that will not be resolved overnight. As each passing generation enters the workplace, we are confident that efforts to remove bias in the workplace will prevail. We see even now as many companies are making changes to create a level playing field. But how can we expedite resolving this issue?  There are still many companies that are not investing in a diverse workforce even as globalization and innovation dictates its necessity to do so.

These are only five of many theories that attempt to explain the leadership gap in the C-suite. Possible solutions to overcome these challenges included mentoring, creating a pro-diversity climate within the organization, obtaining the support of leadership and the board of directors and creating programs specifically catering to aspiring women leaders. These are all pieces of the puzzle; however, unless the system in which recruiting senior leaders change, a diverse leadership will continue to be only a good idea and not a reality. Intentionally changing the succession planning process of which leaders are selected in a firm may accelerate an increase in the number of women leaders in the C-Suite.

Bosak, J., & Sczesny, S. (2011). Gender bias in leader selection? Evidence from a hiring simulation study. Sex Roles, 65, 234-242. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-0012-7.

Byron, K. (2005). A meta-analytic review of work-family conflict and its antecedents. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 67, 169-198

Catalyst. Catalyst quick take: Women in U.S. management and labor force. New York: Catalyst, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-us-management-and-labor-force

Cotter, D. A., Hermsen, J. M., Ovadia, S., & Vanneman, R. (2001). The glass ceiling effect. Social Forces, 80(2), 655-681.

Department of Labor, W. C. (1995). Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital. The Environmental Scan. A Fact-Finding Report of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission.

Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (2007). Women and the labyrinth of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 85(9), 63-71

Haslam, S. A., & Ryan, M. K. (2008). The road to the glass cliff: Differences in the perceived suitability of men and women for leadership positions in succeeding and failing organizations. The Leadership Quarterly, 19, 530-546.

Hoobler, J. M., Lemmon, G., & Wayne, S. J. (2011). Women’s underrepresentation in upper management: New insights on a persistent problem. Organizational Dynamics, 40, 151-156.

NCES (2012). Enrollment, staff, and degrees/certificates conferred in postsecondary institutions participating in Title IV programs, by level and control of institution, sex of student, type of staff, and type of degree: Fall 2010 and 2010-11. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/tables/dt11_196.asp

Virick, M., & Greer, C. R. (2012). Gender diversity in leadership succession: Preparing for the future. Human Resource Management, 51(4), 575. doi:10.1002/hrm.21487

Wolfinger, N.H., Mason, M.A., Gouldens, M. (2008). Problems in the pipeline: Gender, marriage and fertility in: The ivory tower. Journal of Higher Education. 79, 388-405.

Zhou, P. & Park, D. (2013). Which organizations are best in class in managing diversity and inclusion, and what does their path of success look like? Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/student/46/

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