I’m going to be talking to a roomful of women getting their MBA’s this week, and I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of good news for them. True, they are in an elite group of about the one-third of Americans with undergraduate degrees. They will outnumber their male counterparts when they receive their masters degrees. More dramatically, they will be in the uppermost income level for women, that MBA catapulting them to a median annual staring salary of around $90,000. That’s quite a bit more than the median annual earnings of all women working full-time and year round, which is $37,000. If they actually hang in there and get all the way to the executive suite of a Fortune 500 company, their annual compensation may exceed the national economies of some European nations, in the multi-millions of dollars. But they will have a hard time working their “old girls’ network connections” – only four percent of Fortune 500 CEO’s are women.
In fact, the farther up the ladder of corporate America you look, the fewer women you will see. At the entry level, 53 percent of the positions are held by women, according to data in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. About 40 percent of women get up to middle management, and they will comprise 35 percent of directors. However, by the time they’ve worked their way to the rank of vice president, they’ll only make up a quarter of those knocking on the door of the C suite. Of those who push their way through, less than 20 percent will be female.
Where do they all go?
All that education, talent, gut-busting, and all that money won’t keep them in the game. They’ll stay for a decade or more, have a child, maybe two, but then decide it’s not worth it. Maybe they’ll notice that the plum projects with big budgets and lots of staff keep going to men. Or they may notice that they get less attention from their superiors than their male counterparts do. They may become aware that motherhood makes them appear less committed, and less competent, than the father in the next office, no matter that they are working the same long hours with the same sterling results. Strangely, the more successful they are, their female bosses may deem them to be less likeable. If they bend over backwards to make themselves more agreeable, their compensation is more likely to drop. Performing better and proving their merit does not guarantee advancement and promotion. In one study, female executives received higher ratings in all of the 16 competency areas the best leaders possess. At every management level, the women performed better than the men. And at every level, there were fewer women than men, their number decreasing the higher up researchers looked.
This is not a case of waiting for women to catch up. Women have been in the pipeline for decades, out-earning and out-performing, but just not making it to the top. The farther they go from picking up their degrees, the fewer of them remain in the field they trained for. The reason is nothing so obvious as a sign over the door saying “No Women Allowed.” Researchers have found something just as effective but more subtle, something nebulous and harder to put your finger on. It’s something that women are just as likely to demonstrate as men, and it’s called second-generation gender bias, discussed at length in “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers” from the Harvard Business review.
Research has moved away from a focus on the deliberate exclusion of women and toward investigating “second-generation” forms of gender bias as the primary cause of women’s persistent under-representation in leadership roles. This bias erects powerful but subtle and often invisible barriers for women that arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.
The workplace is structured around the traits of the people who go there first, usually men with wives at home full-time, taking care of all aspects of life save paid employment. The “trailing spouse” could up and move around as her husband’s advancement dictated, with no loss to her own career. Freed from other obligations, he became the “ideal worker” and set the standard for assessing performance and progress. In evaluating performance, male traits are often more obvious. “Research indicates that organizations tend to ignore or undervalue behind the scenes work, (building a team, avoiding a crisis), which women are more likely to do, while rewarding heroic work, which is most often done by men.” Even if there was no specific intent to be discriminatory as workplaces developed, “the cumulative effect disadvantages women.”
Opponents of work/life employment policy charge that it is unnecessary, because women won’t stay in the paid workforce. They simply prefer to be home with their children. Not true, according to the Harvard Business Review. (For the vast majority of households with children, working is an economic imperative – this line of inquiry is only relevant to high-earning families that can live on one income.) It’s workplace problems that are driving women out, according to 90 percent of subjects in a survey conducted by Pamela Stone. Inflexibility, lack of support, lack of role models and a deeply gendered way of doing business persists even in 21st century America.
So, to all the women with MBA degrees very nearly in your hands, I salute you and affirm that your talent, drive and ability are the equal of any colleague you may encounter. But I fear that in a world of second-generation gender bias, your real work is only just beginning.
‘Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington