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Women in Government, Higher Education and Business

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

By James Guyot
June 22, 2018

Women at the top in government and higher education are advancing far ahead of women executives in business. They have been appointed to one-third of the Senior Executive Service positions, one-third of federal judge positions and between one-fifth and two-fifths of cabinet positions since President Clinton’s time. Once Nesta Gallas broke the ice in 1976, one-third of the annually selected presidents of the American Society for Public Administration have been women.

However, in competitive elections women have fared less well. Women make up less than one-fifth of the U.S. Congress (at least until this year’s election cycle). These patterns are set out for both federal and state levels in my 2008 Social Science and Modern Society article entitled “Is the Ceiling Truly Glass or Something More Variable?”

In higher education, women have held precisely half of the Ivy League presidencies in recent years. Last year the American Council on Education’s 2017 article in Higher Education Today entitled “Looking Ahead to Diversifying the College Presidency” noted a current rate of 30 percent women in college and university presidencies. This institutional association then set a goal of achieving 50 percent women in chief executive roles by 2030.

By contrast, today women in business constitute only between one-fifteenth and one-twentieth of Fortune 500 or Standard & Poors 500 CEOs.


Photo Courtesy of CNN Money

Explanations may be found on both the demand side and the supply side. As Herbert Kaufman of Yale and Brookings noted, the civil service is expected to be a “model employer.” Hence, after World War II, it has been less free to discriminate on the basis of sex. Since entry into the civil service is by appointment rather than by market-like selection or competitive election, the demand for equal treatment is hierarchically focused rather than dispersed. Presidents or governors can be held responsible for getting the gender proportions of their governing instruments right, while elected representatives draw on the sentiments of a congeries of constituencies.

On the supply side, pre-career educational choices may be operative. Three-quarters of MPA and social service degrees are earned by women. By contrast, a steady majority of MBA degrees are earned by men, while engineering degrees, another route to the executive suite in business, have plateaued for women at about one-fifth over the last quarter century.

Some reasons for greater gender equality at the managerial top in academia might be cultural. The groves of academe are a powerfully progressive territory where dominance of the liberal imagination is clearly evident if in no other indicator than by the political party registrations of faculty members.


How Long?

When might we expect to arrive at the equal balance of 50:50 fair shares for women advocated by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World, Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter in Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family and Facebook’s COO, Sharon Sandberg, in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead? Unfortunately, biology presents a large rock blocking the road to 50:50 even once the loose gravel of gender stereotypes and simple discrimination has been cleared away. Ever since Darwin the proposition of greater male variability has been a well-established fact. Just this year, Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt at the Heterodox Academy posted a master list of abstracts entitled, The Greater Male Variability Hypothesis.

As Nancy Cole pointed out in The ETS Gender Study, in some seventy four cognitive abilities tests given to national random samples of twelfth graders, boys and girls score the same mean, median and mode, but at both extremes, in the top and bottom ten percent, she found five males for four females. Going farther out in the top extreme, at the top two percent level the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth of 1979 found twice as many males as females.  Consequently, Helena Cronin, director of the Darwin Institute at the London School of Economics, quipped that with males we get “more dumb bells but more Nobels.”

To offer this perspective as an explanation of the two-to-one ratio of males in the Senior Executive Service is to take a politically incorrect stance. A dozen years ago Larry Summers did so in suggesting that women are underrepresented “in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions [because] on many, many different human attributes—height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability—there  is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means—which can be debated—there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population.” For that and other gaucheries he was fired from the Harvard presidency a year later. Since I am now retired after fifty-five years of teaching public administration, that is for me no longer a risk.

Author: James F. Guyot ([email protected]) held a series of political science professorships at UCLA, Columbia, and CUNY, interlarded with practitioner stints at the U.S. Civil Service Commission and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. As a farm boy he graduated from Michigan State College and earned a Ph.D. in political science at Yale. His dissertation comparing the motivations of middle managers in business and government appeared in the PAR and was republished half a century later in a classics series by ASPA.

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