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The stalled march to the top: career women in the US

April 25, 2014

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

There is no longer any doubt that individual women can reach the top of the career ladder in America – think Federal Reserve’s Chairman Janet Yellen and Pepsi Co’s CEO Indra Nooyi. However, the overall percentage of men at the highest echelons of power continue to dwarf that of their female colleagues, whose numbers, after rapidly climbing through the 1990s, have not budged for more than a decade. The “glass ceiling” then remains an object of frequent conversations among professional women in cities like Washington, D.C., where ambition is equally divided between the genders but not necessarily the opportunities to foster it.

“Today something like 3% of CEOs of large companies and less than 10% of top managers are women,” says David Ross, Associate Professor at Columbia Business School in New York. The same is true for members of corporate boards. According to data from Catalyst, a non-profit organization that advocates for more gender diversity in business, women held only 16.9% of seats in 2013, the eighth year in a row with no significant progress. Women also comprise about 16% of equity partners at major law firms, 18.5% of members of Congress and 23% of full professors at American universities.

Simmering for years below the surface, a heated debate on the still-unresolved disparities between the sexes was finally unleashed by the publication, a year ago, of Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”, and by the many reactions it provoked, as well as the host of articles and books that have been written on the topic since. This has led to a kind of unexpected rediscovery, among high-income, high-powered big-city women, of long dormant feminist ideals, though undoubtedly gentler and less radical than in the past. Most of them sailed through high school, college and graduate studies largely untouched by gender discrimination, and convinced that the battle for equality fought by their grandmothers and mothers had been won. It turns out that what they thought was a pipeline from entry-level to middle-level to high-level jobs is really a bottleneck that has most of them stuck about halfway through.

It is hard to say exactly why the long march of women toward the top has stalled. The short, and somewhat unsatisfactory, answer is that multiple factors are at play and that different industries contend with different types of challenges.

In politics, for example, there appears to be a recruiting problem at the entry level. “When women run for office they do just as well as similarly situated men, but women are far less likely than men to run,” says Jennifer Lawless, Director of the Women & Politics Institute at the American University in Washington, D.C. This happens for two main reasons: women are not frequently asked or encouraged to run by party leaders, activists or even family members and friends; and they tend to be more self-conscious than their male peers. “Among women and men who look exactly the same on paper, women are far more likely to think that they are unqualified and to let those self-doubts hold them back,” says Lawless. The fact that there are far fewer women than men candidates has repercussions at all levels of politics. Governors, for example, are considered particularly well positioned for the presidency, yet there are only five female governors in the United States today. “Until more and more women run for office, the ultimate glass ceiling might not be shattered,” says Lawless, “not because people are not willing to vote for women but because they are not often given a chance to do so.”

In academia, in law and business, however, the dearth of women in the most sought-after positions can no longer be explained by the fact that too few of them give it a try to begin with. “Somewhere between 40 and 55% of middle managers in corporate America are women,” says Professor Ross of Columbia University. Today women graduate college in higher numbers than men and also hold more Master’s and Doctorate degrees. They represent about half of all law school graduates and of law firms’ associates.

One problem could then be the kind of subfields women go into. “In top management teams, women are more likely to be found in senior supporting positions, such as the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Accounting Officer, the head of human resources, the senior legal counsel,” says Ross. “These are important jobs but they are not really integral to the company’s business.” Instead, women are greatly underrepresented in so-called line positions – for example running the entire operations of a company’s subsidiary – which more easily lead to the CEO job over the long run. Women represent 60% of all compliance officers, a key corporate job but which is normally excluded from the line of succession. Similarly, women comprise 73% of HR managers. In academia, they make up well over half of all adjunct, or non-tenured, professors, and are more likely to hold jobs at community colleges than at large research universities.

A second issue might be that firms unconsciously behave like they have an unofficial quota in mind. “Firms try very hard to move from having all men in their senior corporate ranks to having a woman,” says Ross, “but once they make some progress and long before they reach equality, they start focusing on other things.”

Finally, there is the question of personal choice, of women deciding not to pursue the most competitive career paths, or drop out of the work force all together, out of a desire to achieve a better work-life balance or to focus more fully on one’s family. A sensible decision at the individual level but that, when numbers add up, might hinder progress for all women. Ross, however, cautions against reading too much into this. “If you are a woman moving up the ranks in business and there are barriers to you getting ahead, it would be entirely rational for you to focus your energy elsewhere,” he says.

If the root causes of the current impasse are not fully understood, proposed solutions are also somewhat murky. Jennifer Lawless believes that political parties need to move beyond just talking about wanting to engage women and must proactively recruit female candidates at all levels and across the country. She also adds: “One of the most important things we can do is spread the word that when women run for office they are just as likely as men to win elections. Most people don’t know that. And most of the potential candidates out there don’t know that.”

In business, imposing a quota for women on corporate boards, like it has been done in some European countries, might help, as it would automatically increase their ranks. It might improve the situation even if the quota were only temporary. “People find jobs through networking and they tend to network with those most similar to them, so right now women are kind of isolated because there aren’t many of them,” says David Ross. “But if a critical mass of women were to be found in corporate boards, they would be able to continue networking with each other even after you took away the mandated quota”. This approach, however, can’t really be applied to top management teams, as it would excessively intrude in how organizations run themselves. Therefore a lot depends on companies, how willing they are to invest on women for the long run.

An informal survey I conducted among women friends and colleagues in Washington confirmed that factors related to family life are seen as crucial: better parental leave policies, which give time off to both mothers and fathers, more flexible schedules and work-from-home arrangements, and more comprehensive and affordable child care options. However these are all demands that have limited political appeal in a country that generally views government-mandated regulations and subsidized social services with suspicion. This tension is particularly evident now that the US is recovering from, but it is still bruised by, the Great Recession. It doesn’t help that one of the two major political parties is entirely focused on reducing the size of government. The hope then rests on the ongoing economic recovery, which might create the necessary financial space for both the public and private sectors to take on more risks, open up experimentation and kick into high-gear once again the push to bring more women into leadership posts.

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