The FINANCIAL -- It took Mary Barra more than three decades at General Motors to become
the company’s first female chief executive. Even then we celebrated a
woman reaching the pinnacle of her profession. The same happened again
when Inga Beale became Lloyd's of London's first female CEO in the
company’s 325-year history.
It is still considered newsworthy for women to reach senior managerial positions today – Mary Barra and Inga Beale are prime examples of this. As men continue to hold the majority of boardroom seats and it remains uncommon for leaders to be female, the rise of these two women is therefore remarkable – it’s why so much media attention focusses on their gender and not just on their credentials and the challenges they face.
My research explains just why this is still an accepted reality in the modern world. One of the key discoveries across studies is that women are more likely to be hired for high level roles if there are already a high proportion of female managers employed within an organisation. While this proportion remains low, women will continue to struggle to reach executive heights.
Looking at this from an individual level, I interviewed a female manager for a paper, recently published in Administrative Science Quarterly with Joseph Broschak at the University of Arizona, and she told me a story about one of her former bosses. Her manager, a brilliant and capable woman, had worked her way up and was poised to move into the top level of the company. This promotion would mean that she had a role in setting the strategy of the organization and would get a share of the corporation’s gains.
Precisely at that moment, a new position was created in her company: between her current position and the top position. Although she did take it, she continued to prove herself worthy of a more senior role and, eventually, made it.
Her interpretation of the situation was that the male managers created the job because they did not want a woman joining them in upper management. It points to yet another reason why the playing field may be unbalanced for men and women: differing patterns of job creation that exacerbate inequalities in the workplace. In this case, a new role was brought in designed specifically to block a woman from further promotion.
Indeed, in other cases, job creation may actually represent an expansion of responsibilities that carry rewards. What this particular episode illustrates, however, is that the introduction of new jobs may not always be dictated by apparent administrative needs. It wasn’t clear that another layer was needed in the organization except as a way to offer this woman a promotion while blocking her rise any higher – it’s just one way that women can be held back – it’s most likely that with all the waves of downsizing and trimming of management ranks the position no longer even exists.
This anecdote, and my research carried out at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Canada, shows that the pattern of managerial job creation varies with the proportion of females already employed in management. More new jobs are created and initially filled by women rather than men only when women make up over half of the company’s existing management – at the top levels of business in general women remain vastly under represented.
Yet it’s not just rising through an organisation’s top tiers that the demographic makeup of such jobs affects – it affects women across professional stages throughout their working lives. For instance, the likelihood of women leaving an organisation varies in accordance with the total proportion of women working there, but there is no parallel effect for men.
These differences may seem minor individually but are much more significant when considered alongside the many other differences – in pay, promotion, turnover – related to the relative number of women in an organization. There is a slight catch here, it seems that increasing the number of women may reduce some types of inequality but the question remains: how can the number of women be increased so that occurs?
There is no simple answer. If hiring managers are predisposed to fill new jobs in accordance to which gender already dominates managerial positions – and the positions are already held by men – it’s a cycle that needs to be broken. But like so many of the biases in the workplace these days, this happens at an unconscious level. Most of the time, people don’t intend to or even know that they are discriminating, so how do we eliminate the unintentional biases at work?
Research points us in many directions for those solutions – training, regulation, quotas – though the improvements that result from some of these efforts are minimal at best. Some of the most encouraging findings suggest that the most consistent ways shown to reduce inequality has to do with increasing the amount of accountability and transparency in organizations.
Organizations where managers are held accountable for inequality have less disparity between male and female workplace roles because they’re made aware of the issues involved. This could be by doing something as simple as making people record their decisions and then showing them any patterns of difference between men and women – and it can be enough to eliminate inequalities in pay.
Perhaps then women will take up more seats on the board and we’ll see an influx of female directors, senior managers, CEOs and corporate officers. There’s no doubt that there is a definite lack of female bosses at the current time. Yet the more women in managerial positions, the better the promotional prospects for women throughout entire corporations, and gender equality might have a chance to openly progress in the workplace.
Then women in leadership won’t always be such a newsworthy topic – women could be appointed to senior roles as often as men – and tomorrow’s Mary Barra won’t be seeing herself splashed across the front page quite so often.