Isn't it just a matter of time before women reach parity with men in the upper ranks of the corporate world?
After all, women in the United States now collect nearly 60 percent of four-year degrees and they make up nearly half the American work force.
But despite headline-grabbing news like the recent naming of Meg Whitman as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, a look at the numbers shows that progress at the very top has stalled. Last year, women held about 14 percent of senior executive positions at Fortune 500 companies, according to the nonprofit group Catalyst, which focuses on women in the workplace. That number has barely budged since 2005, after 10 years of slow but steady increases.
So what’s the holdup? Ilene H. Lang, president and chief executive of Catalyst, says one factor can be traced to an “entrenched sexism” that is no less harmful for being largely unconscious.
“I don’t want to blame this on men,” Ms. Lang said. Rather she cites “social norms that are so gendered and so stereotyped that even though we think we’ve gone past them, we really haven’t.”
She describes a corporate environment that offers much more latitude to men and where the bar is much higher for women. In her view, men tend to be promoted based on their promise, whereas women need to prove themselves multiple times.
She maintains that unintentional bias is built into performance review systems. Words like “aggressive” may be used to describe ideal candidates — a label that a man can wear much more comfortably than a woman.
Companies must make a commitment to women’s advancement by holding managers accountable for promoting women and actively measuring their progress, Ms. Lang says, adding that “there’s a big difference between awareness and action.”
Not that there hasn’t been some progress. A rich source of female talent exists just below top management, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a research organization. But women have become stuck in this layer because they tend to lack a sponsor at the top to advocate for them, she says.