Why Are There So Few Women in the C-Suite?

Why Are There So Few Women in the C-Suite? main image

If women's personality traits make them better suited to leadership positions than men, as a 2013 BI Norwegian Business School study suggests, why is it that there are still so very few female CEOs in the boardroom?  Only 25% of senior management positions are filled by women globally, and at CEO level, this percentage drops to 12%, according a 2017 report from professional services network, Grant Thornton.

Financial performance seems to improve the more women there are leading alongside men. A 2015 McKinsey study found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to financially perform above the national median in their industry. The value of diversity cannot be emphasized enough, be it gender diversity or be it ethnic diversity. The most ethnically diverse companies do even better, incidentally, outperforming the industry median by around 35%.

This article however focuses on the reasons behind the lack of gender diversity at the c-suite level, accompanied further down by insights into how a business education, and the executive MBA in particular can benefit women aiming for a top executive career.  

Gender bias: Still an issue for women wanting c-suite level careers

Illustrating how lonely it can be at the top, Sheryl Sandberg, a Harvard MBA and Facebook's chief operating officer (COO) recounts the tale of a New York board meeting she had back in 2008. While the board prepared for a break, she asked where the bathroom was. The gentleman running the session was completely baffled. On discovering that both he and the company had been established in said offices for over a year, Sandberg said; "are you telling me that I am the only woman to have pitched a deal in this office in a year?" The man replied, "Yeah. Or maybe you're the only one who had to go to the bathroom." The fact of the matter is that 34% of businesses around the world have no women at senior leadership level at all (according to the aforementioned Grant Thornton report) and this can lead to quandaries such as these, whether you find them amusing or not.

The gender pay gap is another obstacle for women working at all levels. The World Economic Forum has estimated that it will take until 2186 before women reach pay parity with their male counterparts. "We've moved from overt discrimination to some hidden barriers, " Anne Richards, CEO at M&G Investments, says in a report for Time Inc.’s Fortune Knowledge Group. "I think society has, for centuries, trained us to think in certain ways about women and girls. It will take a long time and persistent effort to overcome these innate biases." This year, Iceland is to become the world's first country to make companies with 25 employees or more formally declare employee wages as a means to verify equal pay, a signal that things are at least edging in the right direction in some parts of the world.

Women are reluctant to go for the c-suite

Sally Blount, dean at the Kellogg School of Management, explains that high-potential women, "do not choose to enter business at the same rates as their male peers," and are, "less likely to feel qualified or motivated to apply for the most prestigious entry-level business jobs." This can pose a problem in the longer term, since men are getting into the top jobs, say in finance or consulting, earlier, and consequently ascend the corporate career ladder faster than their female counterparts.

When women do arrive at middle management positions, only 40% of them are inclined to aim for the c-suite, as opposed to 56% of men, says a 2016 report from McKinsey. They cite the high pressures of work at that level as an impediment, but also believe that they are less likely to be able to get the top jobs. Considerations such as balancing work and family come into play and, while c-suite level executives receive higher compensation, for many women a cost to benefits analysis appears to weigh against taking this particular uphill climb.   


Lack of gender diversity means few female role models at the top

"Companies with female CEOs or board chairs have more women in c-suite positions," states the aforementioned Fortune Knowledge Group study. Perhaps this proves a certain logic - women are arguably more likely to see the benefits of hiring women, but with gender diversity so rarely found at c-suite level, this poses something of a problem. In the study, Monica Mandelli, managing director at Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) stresses the importance of female role models when she says; "you need to have more women like me or others to say, 'We did it, so you can do it too.' That to me is probably the most important thing to do."

Top business schools and the value proposition of an executive MBA

Blount believes that female applicants at the top business schools are still too few, averaging at around one third of the overall applicant pool. For women who are already in mid management and are considering going for a c-suite level position, the format of an executive MBA can offer a study flexibility that; 1.) enables you to keep working, and 2.) brings a formidable support network into play.

Top business schools are versed in understanding the plight and pressures that women who want a top executive career are under. "At Kellogg, we have a long history of launching strong women into the c-suite. This includes the first female CEOs of some of the world’s largest corporations, as well as the first female chair at the [civil rights organization] NAACP," says Blount, who, by the by, is one of the first women to be appointed to the position of dean at a leading business school in the US.

The executive MBA is usually delivered over a period of two years, with many top business schools offering longer-term options to accommodate the busy lives of their students. Much of what is learned during classes, often conducted on weekends, or on intermittent weeks, can be applied at the workplace with almost immediate effect. Being able to implement what is learned, be it new business marketing plans or strategies, for example, sends signs to senior management that you are invested in your organization’s future, consequently increasing your chances for promotion, but also building a confidence that can help both you and your employer.

While you work and study, you will also develop a large network of peers, people who are often on a similar career trajectory and are going through similar pressures. Friends made during the executive MBA often remain friends for life, acting as a resource for each other after the program. This can enable graduates to gain a helping hand into a new industry or function, or even simply provide them someone with whom they can brainstorm business ideas with.


Finally, there's the cachet of the qualification itself. An executive MBA from one of the world's top business schools is an official certification of your accomplishments, one which will have international recognition, and which is likely to receive high accolades from employers.     

Karen Turtle
Written by Karen Turtle

A content writer with a background in higher education, Karen holds an MA in modern languages from the University of St Andrews. Her interests include languages and literature, current affairs and film. ​

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