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The Catch-22 of Women in Executive Positions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

The Way to Get More Women in Executive Positions  is to Have More Women in Executive Positions.

By Brynne VanHettinga
March 3, 2015

According to the nonprofit workplace change organization Catalyst, there are 23 women CEOs of Standard & Poor’s 500 index companies (4.6 percent) as of Jan. 13, 2015. The public sector appears to provide a somewhat better opportunity for women to achieve the highest positions, with 3 female Supreme Court Justices (33.3 percent), 20 female U.S. Senators (20 percent) and 84 female U.S. Representatives (19.3 percent). The Rutgers University Center for American Women in Politics reports that in 2015 there are 5 women serving as state governors (10 percent) and 13 serving as Lt. Governors (26 percent), as well as in a number of other state executive offices. These data are viewed by some as evidence of women’s progress in post-feminist workplaces. However, others note that there is still a long way to go before women in executive positions are proportional to their percentage of the U.S. working population.

VanHettinga marchWhile it may be easy to point the finger at gender discrimination—and gender discrimination, while on the decline, does still exist—the barriers to women’s advancement tend to be somewhat more complex. Some of these barriers are created by the logistics of women’s family responsibilities outside of the workplace, what feminists have termed women’s “second shift.” Employers practically demand total and complete dedication to the organization and its objectives. Any employee—male or female—whose responsibilities to others outside the organization sometimes take priority over organizational duties is considered insufficiently committed or loyal to occupy the higher echelons of power. Because caretaking responsibilities have traditionally fallen upon women, women in general—but particularly married women with children—can be viewed as lacking in organizational commitment.

Others propose that women’s duties outside work interfere with the accumulation of human and social capital that all employees need to get ahead in the workplace. These “conflicting outside obligation” arguments presume that if work at home was more equal, women would be better able to develop needed resources to more equally compete with men on the job. Additional arguments suggest that women don’t rise to the top because they lack the assertiveness and competitive drive that men have. When a women is found in a high level position, this is sometime attributed (and may actually be due to) individual exceptionalism. As one women executive reported in a study by Davies-Netzley, “I learn to talk sports and politics… [because] I have to.” While some studies concentrate on gendered social relationships in general and others focus on gendered behavioral differences or the idiosyncrasies of individual women, gender discrimination itself can take nuanced forms that do not amount to actual animus toward women.

Tokenism. When a woman in a male-dominated institution or profession does obtain a higher level position, she often occupies a form of “token” status. Males under her direct report, as well as others in the organization, presume she was awarded the position because the company needed to produce evidence (either for purposes of employee morale, public relations or legal dictate) that it is an equal opportunity employer. Consequently, the woman in the “token” position is more likely to have her leadership subjected to hostile scrutiny and negative evaluation bias. She is also less likely to have developed an internal supportive network to help promote her career.

Social Identity Theory. Modern sociologists have found that, all else being equal, individuals who belong to so-called “in-groups” receive more favorable evaluations. In essence, the more a candidate for a position is like those who make the decision, the better the person’s chance of success. This phenomenon involves more than simple racial or gender bias, but extends to persons who grew up in the same geographic region, attended the same school(s) and belong to the same organizations. The result is a process that sociologists term homosocial reproduction, whereby those in power elect, appoint or promote those most like themselves into positions of power.

Glass Ceiling Effect. The glass ceiling effect is a particular form of discrimination that results when a person’s probability of being promoted decreases as one moves up the organizational hierarchy. A 2001 study by David Cotter et al. found that, while both women and African-American men experienced discrimination (i.e., artificial barriers to advancement unrelated to qualifications), only women experienced inequality that increased at higher levels.

In 2014, Allison Cook and Christy Glass analyzed all CEO transitions of Fortune 500 companies from 1990 to 2011. Cook and Glass found that gender diversity among institutional boards of directors was significantly correlated (p = 0.05) with the likelihood that women were appointed to the CEO position, as well as a woman’s tenure in that position. This study (as well as others) suggests a type of chicken-versus-the-egg conundrum in which women need to rise to certain levels in the power structure before they have sufficient numbers to overcome tokenism, homosocial reproduction and glass ceiling effects. It seems that there is still work to do toward building that necessary critical mass.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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