Women are largely missing from the highest ranks of corporate power. Even in companies where women outnumber men in lower-level positions, women tend to be far outnumbered among managers and executives.
Researcher Mabel Abraham looked at one American bank where the lower-level jobs were over 80% female, while less than 40 percent of executives were women.
The percentages Abraham found are right in line with my own experience. As an employment lawyer, I prosecuted gender discrimination class actions against several of the largest Wall Street firms and found the same hierarchies. Women were over-represented in entry-level jobs and under-represented in management. Their percentages got steadily smaller as they climbed up the ranks.
Employers have argued that gender inequities like these didn’t result from discrimination, but from a pipeline problem. They claimed that there were not enough women with the education and experience to qualify for top jobs. These days that argument is laughable. Women have outnumbered men in college student bodies for quite a while — possibly since the 1970s – with the gap between them steadily increasing over time. In 2009, 25 percent fewer men graduated college than women. The pipeline is not the problem.
Abraham, a doctoral student at MIT, made another troubling finding: women who successfully climb the ladder are not helping others ascend behind them. Of the 68 bank branches she examined, 44% had female managers. One might expect that in those locations, women would be better represented in higher-level jobs. One would be wrong.
It is disappointing that successful women aren’t helping other women advance, but it shouldn’t be their responsibility to do so anyway. Sexism is a culture-wide problem and not the responsibility of the victims to fix. The low percentage of women in upper management is everyone’s problem. Men should also be mentoring women and helping them get where they want to be professionally. Probably most importantly, men at the top of organizations must establish clear expectations of gender equity and prioritize establishing a culture and infrastructure that fulfill those expectations. One useful research for institutions working towards gender equality is Catalyst, which focuses on ending gender imbalances in the workplace and emphasizes the benefits of doing so.
Successful women don’t have the bandwidth to overcome gender discrimination on their own anyway. When I was in law school, the few women on the faculty were overwhelmed with female students seeking female mentors, while the male professors, who were more numerous, had fewer charges each and therefore more time to devote to their scholarship. Whether the setting is academia or business, there aren’t enough women at the top for them to save everyone below them on their own.
Professional cultures remain biased, so the women who succeed in them are often those who don’t rock the boat about sexual inequality and who are comfortable hanging out with the guys. They may not relate to many of the aspiring women below them who feel differently, and also may not see any need for them to help other women. After all, they may think, they made it, so other women should be able to make it too.
There won’t be an even playing field at work without a dramatic cultural shift, which is underway. I just can’t fathom why it’s taking so long.
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