(By Bob Sherwin)
“The fact that in most organizations there are few female role models at the top serves as prima facie evidence that the opportunities for women are limited. The natural assumption when looking up the organization is that others have tried and not succeeded and “my chances aren’t good.” Whether a lack of opportunity is real or perceived, this real evidence serves as a discouraging impediment.“
The answer to why women vanish in such large numbers as they move up the corporate ladder — and why this does not seem to change over time — is obviously complex. There are many forces at work that cause this to happen. They can be put into several categories for conceptual clarity, though they are highly interrelated.
We think the categories are well summarized by the statements women themselves would make about why they’re vanishing from the corporate ladder:
- “I don’t want the role.”
- “I can’t succeed in the role.”
- “I can’t have the role.”
I Don’t Want The Role
One of the prevalent reasons why women are not making it all the way up the corporate ladder is that the more senior leadership roles are not as appealing to them as they are to men. These feelings were documented in a 2012 McKinsey study that showed a bigger job or greater title did not hold the same appeal or serve as strong an aspiration for women:
In many cases, the importance of work-family balance — especially motherhood — outweighs the leadership opportunities being offered by organizations. Claudia Goldin, professor of economics at Harvard, noted that 36% of all female pediatricians work part-time. “That is how they have a profession that they’re proud of, that’s fulfilling, that is their identity, and they can also mesh it with this thing called life.”
A 2011 Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women survey in the Australian business community also highlighted that work-life balance holds a much higher priority for women. When looking at inhibitors to female advancement in the workplace, their study showed that around 70% of respondents (66% of whom were women, 36% men) felt that women choose to prioritize family over work and elect a more balanced lifestyle over career progression.
Our own interviews confirm that having flexibility in job and career options is more important to women than it is to men.
Whether they want it or not, it’s also clear that women end up with a double burden of responsibility in our society at large. If they work outside the home, studies show that more than 90% of them return home at night to assume the lion’s share of the management of their own households.
At levels disproportionate to their male spouses or partners, women prepare the meals, clean and maintain their houses, take care of children, and get involved in school activities. Whether these are conscious choices they make or roles thrust on them by society at large, women clearly have other priorities than just getting to a corner office.
I Can’t Succeed In The Role
The second category that helps explain why women are not making it all the way up the corporate ladder is their perception that they can’t be successful in more expanded leadership roles. There are several factors that may explain this perception:
- Some would believe that it’s simply not possible to be successful because of various obstacles that will get in their way, like the organizational culture or their own work-life priorities.
- The fact that in most organizations there are few female role models at the top serves as prima facie evidence that the opportunities for women are limited. The natural assumption when looking up the organization is that others have tried and not succeeded and “my chances aren’t good.” Whether a lack of opportunity is real or perceived, this real evidence serves as a discouraging impediment.
- Many women have not built the same level of personal networks needed to succeed in many organizations that men have. These networks can provide great career leverage, including receiving ongoing development help from a mentor, getting an early warning from the network about upcoming advancement opportunities, and even being identified and sponsored for those opportunities. Success will come harder if women aren’t establishing the networks and receiving these benefits to the same degree that men have.
The summary of these factors is that many women are simply discouraged about their chances. Our interviews with women reveal that they feel they must consistently outperform their male counterparts in order to obtain equal career treatment. It’s the oft-heard saying that “we must perform twice as well to be thought of as half as good.”
When we mention that in a room of women leaders, every head nods. The unfortunate summary that we often hear is that these factors combine to make many women question the value of “continuing the fight.”
I Can’t Have The Role
The final category that helps us understand why women are vanishing from the leadership pipeline is organizational barriers that deny them positions. Some of these occur systemically in formal systems and processes that don’t promote gender parity and serve as real obstacles for women in their careers. These would include hiring and promotion processes that would favor men, and inflexible hours or similar work condition policies that penalize women who — as a group — often accept more home/family responsibilities than men.
Others are informal barriers, including deeply embedded beliefs and assumptions that deny advancement opportunities for women. Many take the form of assumed limitations on the part of senior hiring managers like, “she wouldn’t want a job that required a relocation,” “the hours required in this position wouldn’t work for her family,” or “women don’t have career aspirations for this kind of role.”
One of the more common limiting beliefs is what one person called the worry of “B-Flight” — that we can’t consider a woman for the position because she’ll leave it prematurely, fleeing for a “baBy” or a “hubBy.” Some of the barriers here are clearly illegal but still present real impediments.
Although not necessarily illegal, one of the more entrenched and limiting beliefs is that there are certain styles, approaches, or behaviors that are required to be a successful leader. Research shows that both men and women recognize there are style differences and that they may approach solving the same workplace situations in different ways. But with hiring managers at senior levels being predominantly male, the often assumed “appropriate and necessary” leadership approaches would likely be those most similar to their own. The result: women are unfairly deemed to have the wrong leadership style needed to be successful.
The final and most damaging reason that women are vanishing from the corporate ladder is the traditional belief that women are simply less effective leaders than men. That belief is the one that our data completely refutes.