Where Are All the Women Execs?

Business woman shaking hands in meeting

The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the fewer women you find, on a percentage basis. They are indeed underrepresented. On that, the data is irrefutable. The question is why? Is it primarily due to systemic bias at work, cultural factors at home or school, or personal choice by the individual?

Having spent decades in corporate leadership roles, analyzed loads of studies and read countless articles on the subject, I’ve finally come up with an answer to that monumental question. There does appear to be systemic bias, but not in the way you might think. It’s not at work and it’s not against women.

Wait what? If there’s no systemic bias against women in corporate America, how do we explain all the media hype? How do we explain all the studies, the reports, the analysis, the commentary, the social media outcry and the claims by all the activists and women’s groups? 

The explanation is simple. They’re the ones that are biased. They’re biased toward there being something wrong with corporate America that’s holding women back. In reality, the reasons why women are underrepresented in senior leadership positions appear to be primarily related to their upbringing, schooling and personal choices. That’s my take.

Listen, I don’t make that statement lightly. This is a highly charged issue and I’m clearly on the wrong side of the cultural norm. Nevertheless, I’m not willing to sit quietly while special interests and shrill voices shred common sense, deductive reasoning and the scientific method and take corporate America down a politically correct rat hole.

Don’t get me wrong. People are biased. After all, we’re human. But bias against women at work appears to be isolated, not systemic. There once was a systemic bias against women in corporations. I know that because I’ve been around long enough to witness it firsthand. But it’s largely been eradicated by powerful cultural forces.

What with all the legislation and media attention, nobody can get away with it anymore. And that’s as it should be. But the pendulum is now swinging too far in the opposite direction, and that threatens the very underpinnings of meritocracy and fairness necessary for organizations to perform at their best.

Correlation does not imply causation

Here’s how I arrived at my conclusion. In the vast majority of content I’ve read on the subject, writers consistently draw causal connections that are not supported by facts or logic. And when the research is commissioned or conducted by parties with a vested interest in the outcome – which is typically the case – their own analysis of the findings includes similar bias.

In other words, in study after study and article after article, authors draw conclusions that are simply not backed up by the data or deductive reasoning. And that includes the erroneous conclusion of systemic gender bias in the workplace. Let me explain how this works by way of two noteworthy examples.

A recent academic study found four primary factors that determined which C-level executive candidates went on to become CEOs: general ability, execution skills, charisma and strategic skills. Sounds about right to me.

The data was consistent and predictive. But when the same factors were held constant, women were less likely to become CEOs than men. The study itself did not explore the possible causes for that discrepancy because it didn’t test for it.

But that’s not how the finding was reported. After stating the strong correlation between those four factors and CEO outcomes, a Fortune piece, made this what I see as sensational declaration in a standalone paragraph:

“There is, however, one glaring exception: women.”

It went on to say that, “In the study, when male and female candidates scored about the same on all four factors, women were 28% less likely to become CEOs. In other words, even when a woman fit the CEO profile, she was less likely to get the job.”

The phrase in italics (mine, not the article’s) clearly implies that women were not chosen. But that’s not true. All we really know from the study is that fewer women with those characteristics went on to become CEOs. We don’t know why.

The article went on to quote the study’s coauthor, University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Steven Kaplan, saying, “It could be discrimination, but it could also be that women are not choosing to go after those jobs.”

Indeed. Actually, there are other plausible explanations we’ll get to in a minute, but unlike the story’s reporter, at least the good professor passed the “correlation does not imply causation” test. He should be proud of himself for resisting the tug to mischaracterize the result.

Unfortunately, we rarely see that kind of scientific discipline and restraint outside of academia.

Consider the source

When it comes to this particular subject, the most popular and widely reported studies are conducted, not by professors, but by organizations that have a vested interest in the outcome, and therefore a clear bias. Moreover, they exist for the sole purpose of using that bias to influence public opinion, bully corporate leaders and sway public policy.

Last year, LeanIn.Org – an organization created by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who also wrote the bestseller Lean In – and McKinsey & Co. conducted a study called Women in the Workplace as part of a long-term partnership “to encourage female leadership and foster gender equality in the workplace.”

The study concluded that, “Women are still underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline. Many people assume this is because women are leaving companies at higher rates than men or due to difficulties balancing work and family. However, our analysis tells a more complex story: women face greater barriers to advancement and a steeper path to senior leadership.

“While CEO commitment to gender diversity is high, organizations need to make a significant and sustained investment to change company practices and culture so women can achieve their full potential.”

Again, the italics are mine. And after reading the study, I could not find any actual data or deductive reasoning to support those dramatic conclusions. Believe me, I tried.

The study starts out genuine enough, providing solid data to back up statements that women are underrepresented at every management level, are less likely to advance than men and are not leaving organizations at higher rates then men. All of that’s true.

But when it comes down to the causes, it goes completely off the rails, abandoning all logic and scientific fundamentals while coming up with ambiguous findings and drawing sensational conclusions that are sure to make headlines.

One of those findings is, “Women face obstacles on the path to senior leadership.”

To back up that claim, the study shows that, from the VP level and up, women hold fewer critical P&L and operating (line) jobs and more administrative or support (staff) roles. As a result, women are less likely to become CEOs and COOs and more likely to progress to the SVP or C-level in staff roles. All of which is true and logical.

But the research never explores the reasons for that shift away from operating or P&L responsibility. The assumption that there are internal obstacles, as opposed to cultural or personal factors such as work-life balance and others we’ll get into later are never explored.

Call me a cynic, but the original finding seems intentionally worded to mislead or at least be ambiguous. If women indeed “face obstacles on the path to senior leadership,” it’s not at all clear that “company practice and culture” are to blame and need to change, as the study concludes.

Another key finding is, “The leadership ambition gap persists.” According to the study, “at every stage, women are less eager than men to become a top executive. They are more likely to cite ‘stress/pressure’ as a top issue, and this is not solely rooted in concern over balancing work and family. There is evidence pointing to another explanation—the path to leadership is disproportionately stressful for women.”

Indeed, the study demonstrates an “ambition gap” – women increasingly lose their appetite for advancement the higher they climb. But again, the reasons are entirely unclear and the implication that some sort of systemic bias is to blame for disproportionate stress remains a premise, not a conclusion.

The third finding is “Women experience an uneven playing field.” The data clearly shows that women are far “more likely than men to think they have fewer opportunities to advance because of their gender.” Again, the italics are mine.

This reminds me of a survey conducted five years ago showing that two thirds of 1,500 senior managers felt introversion hurt their chances of promotion to higher-level positions. Funny thing is, there was no data to support their concerns but plenty of anecdotal evidence and expert opinion to show that their fears are unfounded.

Clearly, the finding is solely based on perception, not fact. It would be good to know why women felt that way. The study does, however, use that erroneous conclusion to explain why “senior-level women are markedly less satisfied with their role” and career than men. That’s circular reasoning. It might make sense if there were “an uneven playing field,” but I found no evidence of that.

Bring on the quotas

I can go on, but I think you get the point. To make matters worse, the myriad of articles written about this and similarly popular studies either replicate their bias or build upon it. In the vast majority of cases, their headlines, lead paragraphs and language all reflect sensational and wholly unsupported conclusions.

As a result, we now have a broad movement to implement gender quotas in corporate America. Never mind selecting the most qualified candidate for promotion. Meritocracy, RIP.

Look, I’m not saying I have all the answers or that there are no questions worthy of exploring. But once in a while, it would be nice to see important issues analyzed by objective parties with no axe to grind or skin in the game. It would be even better if journalistic integrity still mattered – or at least mattered more than page views and ad dollars.