In many ways, things are getting better for women in the workplace.
Women make up nearly half of the US workforce at 47%, according to the most recent data, and 51% of people employed in management and professional jobs.
And while they still earn less than men — a woman makes about $US0.78 for every dollar a man is paid — the US Census Bureau reported just last week that the gender pay gap is at an all-time low.
From a cultural perspective, the increased visibility of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and her 2013 book “Lean In” have brought increased attention to the need for more female leaders, and high-profile companies like Yahoo and General Motors have chosen women to fill their chief executive openings.
But despite these advances, the top of the corporate food chain remains very much a boys’ club.
At Fortune 500 companies, women account for just 17% of board members, 15% of C-Suite executives, and 5% of CEOs. And, at least where these numbers are concerned, things aren’t improving.
According to Catalyst, an organisation that works to create opportunities for women in business, 2013 was the fourth consecutive year the Fortune 500 did not see significant growth in the percentage of female executive officers and the eighth consecutive year there was not significant growth in the percentage of female board members.
Despite the many programs created to facilitate the promotion of a new generation of female leaders, the best intentions of those in charge have been unable to overcome the countless subtle biases that accompany women in the office.
“If only it were an easy answer, we would solve it,” says Sallie Krawcheck, a former president of wealth management at Bank of America who has since become chair of Ellevate, a social network created to help women succeed in business. “When I graduated from college [in 1987], I thought we would have had this figured out by now. But we just haven’t.”
Research from top-tier consulting firms like McKinsey and Deloitte has shown a link between a diverse executive team and business success, suggesting that companies with diverse leadership are cultivating talent from a larger pool than their competitors and fostering innovative solutions from people with different ways of thinking.
But even though many CEOs accept the economic benefits of having a diverse team, the biases that keep women from climbing the company ladder begin to take hold the moment they enter the office.
It’s not asking ‘Why aren’t women advancing?’, but ‘Why aren’t the men at the top of these companies inviting women into the conversation?’
A 2010 study from Catalyst surveyed nearly 10,000 alumni of elite business schools and found that women were about 30% more likely to begin their careers in entry-level positions, a gap that held true even when filtering out the data of graduates who had children or did not aspire to become senior executives.
While “Lean In” has called attention to the many ways women are socialized not to be assertive in the workplace, Catalyst’s research suggests that it’s not enough for women to take proactive steps toward higher salaries and more prominent positions — change needs to come from the top.
The organisation found that even when women did all of the things they’re supposed to do in order to move up — communicating their desire to ascend the corporate hierarchy, networking with influential leaders, working extra hours, and negotiating for raises and promotions — they were less likely than men to reap the benefits of their advancement strategies.
“We’re so excited about the fact that ‘Lean In’ has really quickly elevated the conversation about women at work, but it’s also important to note that this is not about fixing women, it’s really about fixing workplaces,” Catalyst research director Liz Mulligan-Ferry says. “It’s not asking ‘Why aren’t women advancing?’, but ‘Why aren’t the men at the top of these companies inviting women into the conversation?'”
Fixing workplaces, though, is trickier than it might seem. Many large companies these days have programs in place for finding and cultivating female and minority talent, and Krawcheck notes that they are more likely than not to offer generous maternity leave and flexible working arrangements for working mothers.
The problem, she says, is that women who take advantage of these polices are often seen as lacking ambition or commitment to their work.
For example, there have been periods where her two children have been sick and she has had to prioritise their health over her own business ambitions.
Though she was not working for a big company during either of these sicknesses, her experience at several major banks leads her to believe she would have been seen as lacking commitment for focusing on her children, even after they had healed.
Policy is easy. Perception and expectations are hard.
Indeed, research suggests that men enjoy a 6% pay bump when they have children, while women lose 4% of their salary for every child they have.
Krawcheck says it is important for business leaders to create a culture of what she calls “flexibility without shame.”
“It’s not fair, and it’s not right, and nobody really means it, but you can see in the numbers how it comes out,” Krawcheck says of the penalties women pay for prioritizing their families. “Policy is easy. Perception and expectations are hard.”
To change these perceptions, Krawcheck advocates further explaining to male leaders what they can gain from filling their executive teams with capable women.
To make her point, she created an index fund this summer that uses an algorithm to invest in companies with higher proportions of women in leadership. Her hope is to prove empirically that more women means more money.
Convincing men of the business case for having more women in leadership is especially important during times of economic uncertainty. In fact, Catalyst found that female executives were three times as likely as male executives to be laid off during the recession.
Krawcheck attributes this phenomenon to the fact that in turbulent times, CEOs look to people who they feel they can really trust, who as it so happens usually tend to look like them.
Mulligan-Ferry says companies need to address these biases head-on, both by discussing them in company meetings and by giving women opportunities to demonstrate their capabilities in high-profile jobs.
Instead of merely looking to move women up the ranks, she says companies need to put them on visible projects in roles where their performance is crucial to whether the project succeeds or fails.
“It really needs to be part of the organizational culture,” Mulligan-Ferry says. “It’s having male leaders, and women leaders for that matter, who constantly talk about the business case for diversity and why it’s so important to have women.”
One company that seems to be making at least some progress with this sort of approach is General Electric.
Once a laughingstock when it came to the inclusion of females and minorities in leadership positions, the company has in the past decade doubled the number of women in vice president and executive roles.
Beth Comstock, GE’s chief marketing officer, tells Business Insider that the only way for companies to foster real innovation is to have a diverse group of people making key decisions.
To this end, she says GE has improved itself by giving women the opportunity to succeed in high-profile roles in engineering and technology — fields where women are particularly underrepresented across the board. This includes the company’s current chief financial officer and head of power and water, Lynn Calpeter.
Even with this progress, Comstock says the company’s leadership needs to remain vigilant.
She says that even though diversity of thought can create tension in the decision-making process, it’s crucial that executives at GE and elsewhere are constantly challenging themselves to make sure there are people of different backgrounds calling the shots.
“If that’s truly what you value, the numbers will change,” Comstock says. “It’s not easy, but the payoff is that more diverse teams create more innovative products. I’ve seen it.”
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