Why Aren’t More Women in Top Leadership Positions in Business?

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Despite the fact that women are in the majority in most western world countries in general and account for at least 50% of graduates from business degrees and MBA programs these days, it seems to be having very little impact on how many women occupy the top leadership positions in the business world. Although the numbers vary from country to country, in the US women are estimated to occupy only 17% of so-called “C-suite” positions and even then, these tend to be in the more junior C-suite roles, with CEO, Chancellor, Managing Partner, Agency Head and other top jobs being even more male dominated. This is also true in the fortune 500 companies in the US, where less than 5% of senior executives are women. So why is this still the case, with little apparent change for years it seems? For the most part, it is because of male “misperceptions” about women that continue to prevail and inhibit female progress. So what are the misconceptions that seem to prevail the most?

Misconception 1–Great progress has been made and it’s only a matter of time before equality in the C-suite or wider executive ranks is reached. In reality, while some strides were made in the period between 1970-1990’s there has been only incremental progress in the last 10-15 years and far greater numbers of woman middle management roles still hit the well-known glass ceiling at promotion meetings.

Misconception 2–The newer and younger generation of men is more sympathetic to women being promoted to senior executive ranks. In reality, there is no evidence for this view at all. The many arguments that would have been mounted 25 years ago (such as women are not tough, committed, focused and reliable enough amongst others) still abound in many studies of the majority of younger men who are in a position to potentially promote women. 

Misconception 3–Family/home responsibilities keep women from breaking through the glass ceiling to the C-suite. In reality, this is overwhelmingly an unsubstantiated statement made by men. When asked, less than 5% of female managers say that family and home responsibilities are a major reason and less than 10% admit to turning down a transfer in order to “stay home”. In addition, there has been an explosion in external help with home management and childcare in the last two decades. 

Misconception 4–Women executives who have children cost an organization more. In reality, research suggests that males in managerial roles take just as much time off as women when it comes to a child over the long term and therefore there is no evidence for greater costs being incurred. In addition, women now return to work much more quickly than they did a decade ago and will employ help when direct parental involvement is not possible. 

Misconception 5–Having more female executives means less opportunities for marriage and a greater chance of divorce. In reality, this is true for both male and female senior executives (meaning that there are more single and divorced people in these ranks for both sexes than the wider adult population at large). It is true however that a single/divorced woman is seen to be much less “secure” than a single/divorced man in senior managerial roles in multiple research studies. This is unfairly discriminating against women. 

Misconception 6–Women aren’t assertive/aggressive enough and lack the self-confidence required to be a “top decision-maker”.  In reality, these stereotypical views maintained by males (starting out mainly in the 1960’s as a response to feminism) have no foundation in any facts borne out by research. In addition, in modern management thinking, the more collaborative and inclusive management styles which are often stronger in women are much more valued. It is also the case that in studies of senior executives, the traits most in evidence or even most attributed to success in the job are the same for both men and women. 

Misconception 7–We have a total meritocracy today – both men and women can make it all the way to the top if they have what it takes and work hard for it. In reality, such a claim tends to be made by those who dominate the current order trying to communicate that a fair system is in place when much of the evidence points in a different direction. In practice, males executives still look to “groom” mainly male successors and women are only chosen to make up numbers or to demonstrate that they are in the running for job jobs when in fact the males are chosen much more often for senior roles.

Misconception 8–Many women who get to senior executive positions act like men and are poor role models to other women. In reality, the vast majority of senior women, as few of them as there are, are seen to be excellent role models for other women. In companies where women make it to CEO for example, it is considerably easier to hire women and many more of them will push for promotion.

Sadly then, all of the above misconceptions are still alive and active in the workplace and help to prevent more women from reaching the higher echelons of management. Other than to positively discriminate in favor of women (always a tough thing to do in a real meritocracy that women very much want too), it seems therefore that change in this area comes down to more men in positions of power becoming more enlightened. In other words, senor male executives need to “own up” to having the above views as deliberate or unchallenged misconceptions (even if it is only to some extent) and start to level the playing field. Will this happen more in the next decade? I suspect only if a few visible men at the top are prepared to lead from the front on this issue. – By Dr Jon Warner

 

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