Gender Gap: Breaking the Top Management Boundary

By Dana Goldblatt, DBA

In my first three blog posts for this series, I made the case for gender parity in top management, I discussed the individual behaviors and decisions preventing women from reaching executive-level positions, then I wrote about the organizational barriers women leaders face. This week, I'll look at societal boundaries.

Societal Boundaries

Underpinning individual and organizational barriers are societal boundaries that stem from our collective beliefs, attitudes and treatment of women.

Gender stereotyping, prejudice and bias – Despite findings that women are equally good if not more effective leaders than men,surveys have historically found that American’s believe men are better leaders and prefer them as bosses. While the trend has begun to shift,only three-quarters (76%) of women and less than half (43%) of men in senior management strongly believe that women and men are equally good leaders.The ubiquitous and deep rooted nature of our gender bias is reflected by a recent study which found that a majority of both male AND female Christians in the U.S. picture God as a young white man.4All individual and institutional members of society have a role to play in tackling this barrier including:

  • Parents, Teachers & Schools/Universities – Address unconscious gender bias in school culture, curriculum and assessments of girls’/women’s academic performance and potential, and teach and reinforce gender equality to children/students through daily conversation, advocacy and role modeling. The University of Southern California provides a recent example of how progress can be accelerated if there is a will to do so. It targeted and achieved a 20% increase in the percentage of female incoming MBA students this fall which will make it the first major full-time MBA program to reach gender parity (52% female).Achieving gender parity in tenured professors would be another action it could take to lead on needed changes in academia.
  • Religions – Change your doctrine, practices and sermons to reflect and advocate for gender equality. The Southern Baptist Convention provides a notable example. It recently began addressing the Me Too movement and the role of women. While it still has a lot of progress to make, including allowing women to be ministers, its public discussion and actions to date are positive steps.6
  • Organizations (especially companies in the entertainment industry) – Be socially responsible by ending sexist policies and practices pertaining to products and how they are marketed/advertised, and by publically advocating and financially supporting gender equality as Salesforce did for pay equity.7
  • Consumers – Make socially responsible purchasing decisions based on the gender inclusion and parity values and practices of organizations, and demand that they end sexist policies and practices like labeling toys for boys versus girls and having princesses be a dominate theme for girl's clothes.
  • Women – Be supportive of each other and address your gender bias that includes being a token, a ‘queen bee’ and uncivil to women who are assertive or break other social norms.YES, we are guilty of it too!

“I remember in the third grade that the teacher wrote on my report card to my parents on the back of my report card that I ask too many questions…I can remember my mother going to school and standing up for me…my mom said to me “Don’t you ever stop asking questions…” (Female Founder & CEO)

Lack of public female role models/leaders – The lack of women leaders and knowledge about them reinforces gender bias and hinders women from having examples of successful female leadership styles and traits and aspiring to top management.I became acutely aware that this barrier begins in early childhood when less than one-fifth (3) of the 20 famous Midwesterners from history that my daughter was taught in 1stgrade were women. Over half of the girls had to research and dress up as a man! More recently, only 3 (7%) of the 42 leaders my daughters 3rdgrade classmates named for a science fair project were women and none could name a female scientist, artist or founder of a company. And, she attends a ‘Leader in Me' school!

  • Parents, Teachers & Schools/Universities – Change school curriculum to more thoroughly cover the women’s rights movement as well as women leaders and their under representation across sectors and industries.
  • Consumers & Shareholders – Make socially responsible purchasing, donation and investment decisions based on the representation of women in the top management of organizations. Sources of gender equity information on companies include the Gender Fair application for consumers and Bloomberg Financial Services Gender-Equity Index for shareholders. There are also many mutual funds focused on empowering women.10
  • Institutional Investors – Threaten proxy votes if companies fail to publicly disclose EEO-1 and gender pay gap data (e.g., Arjuna Capital) and similar to the movement to end apartheid in South Africa, divest of holdings in those not demonstrating significant progress at closing gender gaps.11
  • Organizations & Religions – Make a public commitment to gender parity in top management, financially support non-profits that advocate for it and award contracts to organizations that are making progress at achieving it.
  • Women – Proudly acknowledge that you are a female leader, be a role model, advocate and sponsor of other women, and financially support and vote for women running for elected office. Dr. Jess Wade provides a recent example of what one woman can do. She has written 270 Wikipedia profiles on “trailblazing female scientists” so far in her effort to add a new profile each day.12

“I just think it’s one thing I would tell anybody is one of the best ways to support advancement of females is to be supportive of each other, find those advocates and mentors but importantly be a positive role model…” (Female CEO)

Inadequate laws, regulations and enforcement – Research suggests that the inadequate protection and support of women by the laws and regulations of the U.S. government and their enforcement leads to and sustains gender bias, stereotypes and discrimination and the lack of female leaders.13 The government should:

  • Force transparency by expanding federal EEO-1 data collection to include pay and requiring organizations to release their data and a plan to close gender gaps.14
  • Make it illegal for organizations to ask for salary history, compensate women less than men, and mandate arbitration and non-disclosure agreements for sexual harassment and assault.
  • Require that all organizations provide paid paternity leave, family leave and vacations.
  • Provide public daycare, preschool and pre-kindergarten and require elementary schools to operate year around and during work hours or provide free child care before/after school and during breaks.
  • Make gender inclusion and parity in the workforce and top management a public policy priority with goals, incentives and penalties (e.g., reduce the tax contribution of secondary earners, reduce contract bidding scores of organizations with gender gaps, fine companies that are not making progress at closing gaps).15
  • Publically acknowledge the importance of women to U.S. history and society as equal to that of men by equally representing women:
    o  On U.S. currency;
    o  As the focus of public statues, art and museums;
    o  In the naming of national holidays, historical sites, streets, parks, highways and airports; and,
    o  In the selection of people for highly visible positions including the President’s Cabinet and the first NASA astronaut crews to fly on Boeing and SpaceX spaceships.

Female elected official in New York City are taking the first step in making this happen on the local level by leveraging the success of the “Fearless Girl” statue near Wall Street to call for an increase in the number of statues of women. There are currently only 5 (3%) of 150 citywide. They are also advocating for the creation of the first national museum in Washington D.C. dedicated to “the advancement of women.”16

Lack of awareness and belief in gender inequality and commitment to address it – Compounding the problem is the lack of awareness and belief that gender inequality even exists in the U.S. despite empirical data that it does. Nearly half of men and one-third of women surveyed believe that women are well represented in top management.17 Another study found that similar percentages of men (52%) and women (35%) do not believe that there is “a lot” or even “some” discrimination against women in our society. It also found that fewer people believe that women (57%) are discriminated against than Hispanics (65%), African Americans (68%) or “Gays and Lesbians” (74%) and that women face discrimination to a lesser degree (“a lot:” 13%, 19%, 21% and 28%, respectively). Not surprisingly, only about half of both women (58%) and men (48%) consider gender diversity to be a “very important or top personal priority.”18 The U.S. population’s diversity arguably makes it more challenging for society to obtain the focus and commitment necessary to achieve gender parity in top management. As a male CEO told me when I asked for his company to sign a pledge to increased women in top management that was being sponsored by a women’s organization: “I like the group and everything else, but I do not want to get involved because you are single mindedly focused on one aspect of diversity, and I like to think of diversity as broader than that. I like to think of diversity, in all aspects, not just female.” He eventually agreed to commit to it after being presented with data that showed women of color are the most underrepresented group in top management followed by white women.19

To increase the number of women in executive-level positons, women must bring attention to the disparity and the causes of the problem as well as reject the false premise that we are primarily responsible for creating and solving it. All of us, as individuals and members of organizations and society, must take deliberate and holistic action to eliminate gender-related career barriers and prevent them from reemerging. My next post will focus on board of director positions.

About Dana Goldblatt

Dr. Goldblatt is a speaker at WE18, the Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers, October 18-20, 2018 in Minneapolis, MN. She helps organizations achieve sustainable transformational change by setting and communicating strategic objectives, aligning organization structure, culture and talent with strategy and actively measuring and managing strategic performance. Prior to leading the Strategy Execution Group, she was V.P. of Research and Advisory Services at Palladium and a Principal in its Strategy Consulting practice. Dr. Goldblatt has assisted more than 75 private, public and social sector U.S. and international organizations in a wide variety of industries and has conducted research and published articles on best and leading practices in strategy, CEO successions and women in top management. She believes that gender parity is a strategic imperative and is committed to achieving it through education, advocacy and action.

1S. C. Paustian-Underdahl, L. S. Walker, and D. J. Woehr, ‘Gender and Perceptions of Leadership Effectiveness: A Meta-Analysis of Contextual Moderators’, Journal of Applied Psychology, 99.6 (2014), 1129–45.

Bob Sherwin, ‘Why Women Are More Effective Leaders Than Men’, Busness Insider, January 2014.

2Megan Brenan, ‘Americans No Longer Prefer Male Boss to Female Boss’ (Gallup, 2017).

Pew Research Center, Women and Leadership: Public Says Women Are Equally Qualified, but Barrers Persist(Washington, D.C., 2015).

3Desvaux and others, 2017.

4JC Jackson, N Hester, and K Gray, ‘The Faces of God in America: Revealing Religious Diversity across People and Politics’, PLoS One, 2018.

5Alice Tozer, ‘A Major Busness School Reaches Gender Parity Among MBA Students for the First Time’, Fortune.com, 2018.

6Margaret Bendroth, ‘Could Southern Baptists Actually Become Feminists?’, The New York Times(New York, 21 June 2018).

7Leslie Stalhl, ‘Leading by Example to Close the Gender Pay Gap’, CBSNews.com, 2018 [accessed 6 August 2018].

8Allyson S. Gabriel, Marcus M. Butts, and Micahel T. Sliter, ‘Women Experience More Incivility at Work — Especially from Other Women’, Harvard Business Review, 2018.
9Fitzsimmons, Callan, and Paulsen.

Eva Pereira, ‘The Role Model Effect: Women Leaders Key To Inspiring The Next Generation’, Forbes.com, 2012.

The Rockefeller Foundation.

10Debbie Carlson, ‘Invest in Gender Equality for Strong Portfolios’, U.S. News & World Report, 22 March 2018.

Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen, ‘Mutual Funds Aimed at Empowering Women’, Green America[accessed 8 August 2018].

11Kate Gibson, ‘Amazon Says It Does Pay Men and Women Equally’, CBSNews.com, 2016.

12Jenna Amatulli, ‘This Physicist Wants Female Scientists to Get Noticed. So She Wrote 270 Wikipedia Profiles’, Huffingtonpost.com, 2018.

13Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital (Washington, D.C., 1995).

Doug Guthrie and Louise Marie Roth, ‘The State, Courts, and Equal Opportunities for Female CEOs in U.S. Organizations: Specifying Institutional Mechanisms’, Social Forces, 78.2 (1999), 511–42.

14Stephen Miller, ‘White House Suspends Pay-Data Reporting on Revised EEO-1 Form’ (SHRM, 2017).

15Desvaux and others.

16Linda Massarella, ‘“Fearless Girl” Inspires Call for More Statutes of Women in NYC’, New York Post, 2018.

17Thomas and others.

18Pew Research Center.

19Thomas and others.