Talent Management Column

Where Are the Women in Top Management?

A new study finds that a generation of advocacy to break the glass barrier is not proving successful. Women who do progress are relegated to jobs that often do not lead to CEO positions, and others are mired at the middle-management level.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006
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A generation of advocacy to increase the representation of women in the leadership of the corporate world appeared to be paying off. High-profile positions at the top of prominent corporations, such as Xerox, Lucent, Hewlett-Packard and eBay, suggested that women were finally getting through what had been seen as a "glass ceiling," a rigid, but difficult to identify, barrier that had kept them from the top corporate jobs.

At the entry-level in the business world, women were enrolling in record numbers in business and law schools and moving into elite careers, such as investment banking and consulting. Prominent companies, such as Deloitte, and organizations, such as Catalyst, ushered in programs to mentor and develop women from entry-level positions into the executive ranks.

The reason for the dearth of women executives, the argument went, was that there were not enough women yet in the career pipeline that would eventually take them from entry-level jobs through promotion tracks and into the executive suite.

But the pipeline of talent appeared to be filling with women, and it was only to be a matter of time before they advanced into the executive ranks at rates more equal to those of men.

Now it appears that this optimism was premature. A new study, "The Pipeline to the Top: Women and Men Executives in U.S. Corporations," suggests the pipeline is, in fact, pretty empty.

The authors, Constance E. Helfat, Dawn Harris and Paul Wolfson, looked at the top executives in Fortune 1000 companies and found that, overall, about 8 percent were women, a figure less than other estimates but not dramatically so.

What they also found, however, was that half these companies had no women at all in the executive ranks, and only 23 percent had more than one woman in the executive hierarchy.

In other words, while a few companies were employing women in numbers proportionate to their share of lower-level and entry positions, the vast majority -- and big companies were just as likely to be in this group as small ones -- had a glass ceiling firmly and tightly in place.

The women in executive roles in the study, which was published this month by the Academy of Management Perspectives, are substantially younger than their male counterparts and also have less tenure in their positions. This appears to indicate women are advancing faster than men -- good news if one is interested in increasing the distribution of women at the top.

The study also found that the women are not concentrated at the bottom of the executive hierarchy -- overall, their distribution across positions reflects that of men. What is different about their roles, however, is they are half as likely, even controlling for their small overall numbers, to be in line positions.

In other words, women executives are concentrated in staff jobs, especially in public relations and human resources. The reason this matters is that line jobs or general-management positions -- where leaders have profit-and-loss responsibility -- represent the most important stepping stones to the very top corporate jobs. In the study, the few women who are in executive jobs are concentrated elsewhere.

The authors then generate some estimates as to the percentage of CEOs who will be women in the future if we assume the usual pattern of promotion holds -- that most CEOs will come from the ranks of line managers and (more recently) chief financial officers.

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Because so few women are in these roles now, the pipeline for the future is very thin. The proportion of women likely to become CEOs by 2016 is, therefore, proportionately small, not much above where it is now.

This estimate assumes the women executives can and will move across companies to advance and that the probability of advancing is not dependent on the current employers. In other words, the companies are assumed to be gender-blind with respect to future advancement.

If, on the other hand, one assumes that the companies having no women executives in their ranks are less likely to appoint a woman CEO -- arguably a much more likely scenario -- the proportion of women CEOs in the future will be even lower.

So, what is going on here?

Something is still preventing women from getting through the glass ceiling. Getting into the executive suite at all appears to be next to impossible in most companies, and when some women do get there, they are in the wrong positions -- staff jobs rather than line jobs -- for advancing further.

There is also evidence consistent with a cynical view that, at least in many of these companies, women are in executive positions largely because of tokenism. The proportion of women executives in the study is actually less in larger companies, a result one would expect if the goal is simply to have a woman somewhere in the executive ranks to point to as a gender representative.

For readers who work in organizations with an executive hierarchy, the important thing to do in light of this study is to see where in the organizational hierarchy the proportion of women begins to drop off.

In virtually all companies, it is someplace in middle management. The question to ask, one hopes at an executive meeting, is: Why is this happening? The answers are sure to be enlightening, perhaps especially if they are not true.

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