While women rise up the ranks at companies thanks to successful pipeline and leadership programs, there are still fewer women than expected nabbing the top job. What’s the real reason behind the dearth of female CEOs?
“Once you get to the top job at the company, in most cases, you are dealing with a male kingdom,” says Dina Dublon, a former CFO at JPMorgan Chase. “For as long as we are the minority group, it is much more about our capacity to adjust to them than their capacity to open up to us.”
“For years I thought it was a pipeline question,” says Julie Daum. She leads efforts to recruit women for corporate boards at US-based consultancy Spencer Stuart.
“But it’s not — I’ve been watching the pipeline for 25 years. There is real bias, and without the ability to shine a light on it and really measure it, I don’t think anything’s going to change.”
These excerpts comes from a recent investigative piece published at the New York Times, which seeks to uncover why, despite increases in every other area, there are still only a handful of female CEOs in corporate America. And while the article looks specifically at the US, there are clear correlations to the state of play in Australia. In 2016, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) report found women accounted for 15.4 per cent of CEOs. Though not as dire as the US’s 5.4 per cent, it’s a topic that continues to spark think pieces and analysis across Australian media.
However rather than crunching numbers, author Susan Chira’s investigation takes a different tack; it directly asks the women who got close, but had to stop at the number two job: “what held you back?”
From interviews with chief executives, would-be chief executives, headhunters, business school deans and human resources professionals, it concludes that women who aspire to power in the top job face far more resistance, both overt and subtle, than they had “expected would be the case by now.”
We’ve smashed the glass ceiling. We just can’t get onto the roof.
From the insights provided by the woman interviewed, it seems that the problems women once faced climbing the corporate ladder are no longer prohibitive barriers to executive positions.
It’s not until female leaders hit the C-suite, that they got frozen in their tracks.
One issue mentioned by several of the women interviewed was when they pushed hard for change, they were blocked from the CEO role.
Another story that resonated with many women is the case of one executive, who was tapped as a possible successor to the chief executive. She left her position when she was outmanoeuvred by male colleagues during a corporate restructure – and said she was unprepared for the 24/7 hardball competitive culture at the very top. “Before heading to the C-suite, I didn’t feel I was handicapped at all,” she says. However looking back, she’s convinced being a woman hurt her.
“Women are prey,” she says. “They can smell it in the water, that women are not going to play the same game. Those men think, ‘If I kick her, she’s not going to kick back, but the men will. So I’ll go after her.’’
“Most women are not socialised to be unapologetically competitive,” writes Chira, herself a former senior executive. Another former exec interviewed, Ellen Kullman, former chief executive at DuPont, agrees.
“We tend to be brought up thinking that life’s fair, that you thrive and deliver, and the rest will take care of itself. It actually does work for most of your career. It doesn’t work for that last couple of steps.”
More than just a caregiver issue
The article is also interesting because it pushes past the oft-repeated tropes about what holds women back from top jobs: family and caregiving commitments, the gender “likability” bias (have you read about it? Research finds women must be seen as warm in order to capitalise on their competence and be seen as confident and influential at work; competent men are seen as confident and influential whether they are warm or not), and the absence of cheerleaders (including men) to help them get to the top.
Instead, the challenge for women who make it to the top is how to enter into the intangible but crucial circle of male camaraderie, writes Chira.
In much the same way we’ve seen other workplace issues such as flexibility, diversity and domestic violence move forward through open dialogue, reading the frank assessments about what kept these women from becoming CEO is an important step. Perhaps seismic change here, as with other cultural problems, requires a critical mass of women in the C-suite – to remake the culture from within.
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