Why the Number of Female Chief Executives Is Falling

The number of women leading the largest companies has always been small. This year, it got 25 percent smaller.

Posted Updated

, New York Times

The number of women leading the largest companies has always been small. This year, it got 25 percent smaller.

The reversal is leading to a search beyond the usual explanations for why women don’t become chief executives — things like not being competitive enough, failing to chase opportunities for promotion and choosing work-life balance over high-powered jobs.

That’s because evidence shows that the obstacles for female executives aren’t just because of their individual choices. There are larger forces at work, experts say, rooted in biases against women in power, mothers who work or leaders who don’t fit the mold of the people who led before them.

For many years, it seemed like the share of women at the top of corporate America would slowly increase over time. The number of women leading companies in the Fortune 500 had grown to 6.4 percent last year, an all-time high, from 2.6 percent a decade earlier.

But this year, the number of female chief executives declined 25 percent, according to Fortune’s 2018 list, which was published Monday. There are now 24 women, down from 32. Twelve left their jobs — most recently, Denise Morrison of Campbell Soup Company, who abruptly announced her retirement Friday — and four joined the list.

Women in business start out equal to men in terms of jobs and pay. But at each level, they disappear. Only 22 percent of women are senior vice presidents, according to the annual Women in the Workplace study by Lean In and McKinsey. The drop-off starts with the first promotion to management: Women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted to manager than their male peers.

“Men and women are all going into high-powered jobs,” said Robin Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School and chairwoman of its gender initiative. “The question is what happens to them down the road, and that’s a messy story. People say they’re opting out, they want work-life balance, but we know from a lot of research that it’s not as simple as that. They’re not given opportunities.”

One of the main explanations for women’s underrepresentation has been that it’s too hard to run a big company and be a mother. But it’s increasingly clear that this explanation overlooks deeper issues about the way workplaces operate, some experts say.

For one, men have families too. By making caregiving a women’s problem, companies avoid changing their cultures in ways that would give everyone more work-life balance — for example, by limiting after-hours work or offering more flexibility about when and where work gets done.

Instead, women are much more likely to use workplace policies like parental leave, to work part time or to move to less demanding positions because of their family obligations. Men are just as likely to say that they’re stressed about juggling their careers and family life, but they deal with it differently. They leave early, ask colleagues to cover for them or take local clients that don’t require travel — but tend not to tell anyone they’re doing it.

The result is that women’s careers are stunted, but men’s are not.

There don’t appear to be gender differences in leadership ability, either. A recent analysis of 2,600 executives found that men and women did not differ on multiple areas that were assessed, including interpersonal, analytical and managerial skills and general ability. Yet comparing women and men with similar skills and talents, women were much less likely to become chief executives.

One reason, other studies have shown, is that we unconsciously assume good leaders are male, and we have mixed feelings about women who have successful careers.

The typical chief executive is 6 feet tall with a deep voice — a typical woman doesn’t match the image. In an experiment, respondents said someone named Eric who offered new ideas was a natural leader, while someone named Erica who offered the same ideas was not.

Female business school students who were single reported that they wanted lower salaries and shorter work hours when they expected classmates, particularly single men, to see their answers, according to a study last fall in the American Economic Review.

These biases against ambitious women affect how managers treat women at work.

Men are seen as having leadership qualities like gravitas, while women are seen as having supporting-role qualities like dependability. When women ask for promotions or raises, they’re more likely to be called bossy or aggressive, found Lean In and McKinsey. Men are more likely to get them without asking.

“It’s all about the culture of organizations and the broader cultural attitudes toward women, and the difficulty all of us have, research would suggest, really respecting a woman in a position of authority,” Ely said. The MeToo movement might be helping women, by exposing the entrenched discrimination they face at work, said Brande Stellings, senior vice president of advisory services at Catalyst, a nonprofit consulting and research firm on women in business. But in some companies, it has also had the opposite effect, by discouraging men from mentoring junior women out of fear that it might be interpreted the wrong way.

Researchers have suggested various ways to promote more female leaders. It starts with having women at the top: they hire and promote more women into executive positions. Managers could receive bonuses contingent on promoting women. Investors can demand that companies diversify their ranks. Hiring can be standardized, so people don’t pick candidates based on irrelevant things like height.

Both women and men benefit from more flexibility and hours when they’re not expected to be reachable. Companies that want to attract female executives could include spousal job searches and child care in the hiring package. They can also find ways to minimize the negative effects for people who take career breaks.

But researchers and recruiters say that real change will only come from addressing bias at a more fundamental level — and changing the way we think is significantly harder.

“Many companies grab on to it as the issue, so they put in lots of great things,” Stellings said. “But they don’t address the underlying biases that make a difference in getting to that rarefied C suite.”

Copyright 2022 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.