Why Women Still Aren’t Getting Promoted at Work

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.

Photo credit: Thinkstock/iStock


Jerome S
Jerome S2 years ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa5 years ago

Thank you

Jose L.
Jose L.5 years ago

This is one reason I favor open biz (open source). Greedy biz where control and power works from top down can get away with whatever they like. Secrets are protected and sharing is not taken lightly. In contrast, open biz would require transparency, even as it helps the competition. With greater access, we would find more balance everywhere (based on one's desire to work hard and honest). Open works if everyone is invited to the party and can gain and vote to various degrees. Patrons and workers would favor such a firm. That's my view.

Robyn O.
Robyn O.5 years ago

As someone who began working in the late 1960s, I can tell you that there was a growth of women in more responsible jobs in the 1980s, but a decline after that. If you compare the way women are now treated in the popular media, especially on television and in the movies and in the "music world", there was a backlash after that and women are just about where they were before 1980. Women are expected to dress like sluts while men are still well-suited and tied. What is offered now are cutsy little styles that present women like lascivious little girls. I know, it shouldn't matter what women in business wear, but it does even if everyone denies it. Men still don't want to compete with women or promote them in business. And the very few women who have "made it" pull up the ladder behind them to protect their status and salaries.

Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman5 years ago

Adam S. mentioned a level playing field. Are you aware that the lack of affirmative action is why post secondary education has mostly female students? Only prestigious private universities, think Ivy League, are allowed affirmative action, and they use it in part to ensure that their student bodies are at least one half male.

Mika De Silva
Mika De Silva5 years ago

There's still a lot of unconscious bias that goes on in the workplace. Oh well, they can keep building up walls, we'll keep breaking them down!

Carole R.
Carole R5 years ago

Hard to imagine, but true.

Elizabeth F.
Elizabeth F5 years ago

Does anyone know what century it is!!!

Caili W.
A. Cailia W5 years ago

Hopefully, someday equality will actually mean all people being treated as equals. It is sad to think that it is still so far off.