Women are not filling the executive ranks at the same rate as men and the reasons appear to be arbitrary and unrelated to performance. DDI’s Center for Applied Behavioral Research conducted a study of women executives and summarized findings in the report, “Holding Women Back: Troubling Discoveries and Best Practices for Helping Female Leaders Succeed.” They write:
…a review of the demographic data revealed that organizations were not evenhanded in their treatment of male and female leaders. The women—more than one-third of the global sample of over 12,800 leaders—had not progressed nearly as far up the management ladder as the men. This discrepancy isn’t a surprise; it has been reported frequently in popular media. What caught our attention was how the deck is stacked against women from the start of their management careers.
Structural discrimination starts early. Men are more likely than women to be considered management material. Far more men in line management positions receive the coveted but often secret designation, high potential (HiPo). The HiPos receive more encouragement, sometimes being directed into special training and multi-national management experiences. As these managers move up the ranks, the gap between the percentage of men and women at each level continues to increase. Women who are promoted without the grooming that HiPos receive are set up for failure.
This is the “Matthew Effect” first identified by the sociologist Robert Merton and explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, “Outliers.” (To paraphrase Gospel of Matthew 25:29: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.) Gladwell uses the example of many young Canadian hockey players who are unlikely to achieve stardom simply because of having the misfortune of a late-in-the-year birth date. So too, many talented women managers will not break through the glass ceiling simply because they had a boss who did not consider them high potential at the beginning of their careers.
What should companies do to correct this situation?