The Real Reason There Aren't Many Female CEOs Is Biology

Claire Gruppo

This editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature ‘Why Aren’t There More Women In Positions Of Power?

Anyone who has striven to surpass others in their fields (or, for that matter, anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers”) will confirm that you have a better chance of breaking out of the pack if you work 14 (not 9) hours a day, 6 (not 5) days a week, rack up hundreds of thousands of Frequent Flyer miles, take less vacation than the approved amount, and be generally available 24/7 to those above you who matter.

Some brave, highly talented and deeply motivated female souls have cobbled together solutions that allow them to have a happy family life and a thriving career at the same time, but not without paying a price on one end or the other, or both. Men do not have to make this trade off. Ever. 

The result? More men than women are 150% focused on achieving leadership roles in their chosen professions. So more men get to the top. Simple.  

There were years when I was home so infrequently that I could not even keep a houseplant alive. Mind you, I do not endorse this, but I have lived it.  

When I was in my early 30s, scrapping and slogging and digging my way through corporate America in a skirt, competing for the “prize” with the guys whose wives never asked them what my then husband would ask, “Who’s going to stay home when we have children?”

My response, “Not me. And not you if you want to be with me.” Alas, reproductive years spent in the office. First marriage in shambles. But career on fire. I am not proud of this.

While biology is not destiny it is pretty damn immutable. Women conceive, carry and give birth to children. Even in an age of effective outsourcing, and even if you outsource every other aspect of having and raising children, the reproductive job cannot be carried out by men.

And women’s biological reproductive “window” shuts down at the most critically productive years for career building. So if society wants to reproduce itself, women have to do it. And they have to do it before they are 40.

This does not mean that women cannot have meaningful careers and also have babies. Or have babies and meaningful careers.  But it is very, very, very difficult to be 150% focused and successful at both, at the same time, between the age of 25 and 40.  This is a fact. 

Until genetic scientists figure out how to effectively freeze eggs so that they are as good as sperm that is made fresh every day, this will not change. The great neutralizer will be when both men and women can preserve their option for biological reproduction on the exact same time frame. Then women will be able to compete on a level playing field, become leaders in their professions by the age of 50, and then have their babies.  

Think about what birth control did for the women’s movement. Think about what reproductive control would do for women’s career liberation. 

Sometimes I wonder whether I was just not imaginative enough to figure out how to become the co-founder and CEO of an investment banking boutique and be a mother. Or whether I was just hyper realistic and focused, as my friends used to say, like a “freight train” on my professional goals.

I became a first-time mother at the age of 52; actually one month and one day shy of my 53rd birthday, to be precise. Obviously, this event happened in an “unconventional” way, with a little help from science, a great deal of soul searching, some serendipity, and a significant legal bill.  

As most first-time parents (especially mothers) over 50 will tell you, it was probably the most deliberate — and usually the best — decision of their lives. Better late than never, they will say with conviction. But that glib statement begs the obvious question, why so damn late? 

Maybe the solution does not lie solely in the egg freezer. Maybe the answer lies in the gradual realisation that biology is destiny, and that corporate America has to come up with a viable solution that allows 50% of its available talent pool to compete for 50% of its leadership positions, a strategy that would certainly improve our position in the global economy.

SEE MORE OF THE GREAT DEBATE: ‘Why Aren’t There More Women In Positions Of Power?’ >

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