It’s true in higher education, it’s true in law firms, it’s true in hospitals (it’s even true in monarchies!): women can get far, but they can’t get all the way to the top.
In Europe, fewer than 10% of universities are run by women. In Fortune 500 companies, about 17% of lawyers are women. Even in a relatively egalitarian country like Norway, a man in healthcare is much more likely than a woman to achieve a position of leadership.
Three things stopping women
There are only three possible explanations for the lower numbers of women at the top level of these organizations.
- Women are not capable of doing the work that is required at the top.
- Women do not have the desire to be at the top.
- There are structural impediments preventing women from reaching the top.
That’s it. Those are the three options.
It may be a little of one, it may be a lot of the other, but those are the alternatives we have to explain the relative absence of women at the top. Whatever explanation is right for your organization, there are good reasons to believe you’ll be better if you work for change. The only way this can happen, is through leadership.
Any organization with fewer women at the top than at the bottom should ask itself which of these explanations apply to it.
A difference in brainpower?
If you want to understand what happens to women’s careers where you work, you might start by asking if the problem is that women simply aren’t capable. It’s a risky question. It’s one I don’t spend much time on. But even in higher education, there are those who do.
Larry Summers, former President of Harvard, suggested once that women are inherently less capable than men of succeeding in math and science. And once was all it took; shortly thereafter, he lost his job!
But a lack of fingerspitzengefühl isn’t the only way to find oneself defending the first option. In the wake of the Summers fiasco, Harvard psychologists Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke debated the claim that there is variation in the cognitive capacities of men and women, and Pinker defended the assertion that we should expect to find group-wise cognitive differences.
Maybe she’s just not that into it
What about desire? At my university, about 40% of the associate professors are women while about 25% of the full professors are. Those who don’t make it to the highest rank aren’t leaving. But do they simply not want to get all the way to the top? Could there be anything to this argument? Is there any reason to believe it might be somewhat true?
Women on their way to top leadership positions often emphasize different approaches to leadership, as the McKinsey Women Matter reports make clear. Women are better at collaboration than men, it is claimed, and collaborative behavior can at times appear indecisive or deferential, as recently argued in Collaboration’s Hidden Tax on Women’s Careers, by Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt.
This study, along with the related research, does not conclude that women lack the ambition to get to the top. It concludes that women’s approach to the workplace in general and to leadership in particular, can have the superficial appearance of a lack of ambition, when judged against a male corporate culture.
Time to fix it?
The third possible explanation for having few women at the top is that there are structural barriers; in short, that there is discrimination. And, alas, the body of research on hiring and promotion makes it increasingly clear that there are in fact structural impediments for women. Men and women are judged by different criteria, they are expected to perform differently, and they are rewarded differently for the same accomplishments.
You owe it to yourself and your organization to ask these questions:
- Are there disproportionately fewer women at the highest level of our institution?
- Is that because women are less capable of doing the job?
- Is it because they don’t want the job?
- Or is there something else that gets in the way?
The questions here should not be answered with anecdotes. There is extensive research from many domains addressing these questions. Bring that research into your organization. Find out how it applies where you work. Be honest about your answers. And then make things better.
After all, making your organization better for women will make it better for everyone.