March 8th, 2011 By: Jenna Goudreau
On the 100-year anniversary of International Women’s Day, a global day to celebrate women’s economic, political and social achievements, the barriers to women’s advancement into top leadership positions remain unclear.
An early-morning event sponsored by HSBC Bank used video technology to connect audiences in New York, London and Hong Kong for a live discussion of “the shape of things to come.” Around the world, most are cautiously optimistic on women’s progress.
A survey of almost 300 respondents in the U.S., Europe and Asia gauged perspectives on gender equality 50 years from today and how we’ll get there. Globally, 51% believe it’s the business worlds’ responsibility to help women into business. However, respondents were dubious that flexible scheduling would have an impact. Just 42% said those wanting to be CEO would work flexibly in 2061, with 20% adding that it would only be women. It seems that changes on the home front may become much more important, as 60% believe childcare will eventually be split 50-50 between parents.
Hanna Rosin, editor of the Atlantic and Slate’s Double X and author of controversial article “The End of Men,” jumpstarted a panel discussion among Catalyst’s Laura Sabattini, Barnard College President Debora Spar and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of Half The Sky.
“Women have made amazing strides since the 1970s,” Rosin began. “But at the very top, you see this incredible plummeting.”
The uncomfortable numbers are well-known. Women are half of the workforce, the majority of middle management, and now the majority of college graduates. At the same time, women are just 2.2% of chief executives at top U.S. companies and comprise about 15% of board members and officers. Women hold just 17% of House and Senate seats. Meanwhile, only six governors are female, a decline of two since 2008. In nearly every field, there is a dearth of women at the top. Even in liberal Hollywood only 7% of the top 250 grossing movies in 2010 were directed by women.
So, what’s going on? Spar delivered what she deemed good news, bad news and really bad news. On the bright side, “Girls are trouncing boys in high school, college and even graduate school,” she said. Women hold almost all leadership positions in high school, where they also lead SAT reading scores and are catching up in math, and represent 57% of enrollment in four-year colleges, Spar said.
The bad: Women born to a post-feminist generation–the 1960s and later–should have achieved parity in leadership by now. Instead, “women are storming into industries and bottoming out.”
“The traditional obstacles are gone,” Spar continued, referring to past policy changes that allowed women to achieve education and entry to the workforce. “The problems that remain are even tougher, more difficult to see. There are no more switches left to flip. Now we have to do the harder work.”
Sabattini, director of research at Catalyst, agrees the remaining barriers to women’s leadership are more elusive. Visibility remains an issue, including access to critical relationships and mentors. “You can’t just do a good job. People need to know what you’re doing,” she said.
Feminine stereotypes are also working against women. “A man’s assertive behavior is viewed as ‘pushy’ for a woman,” said Sabattini. And with so few women at the top, they are examined, over examined and ultimately perpetuate the female leadership myths.
Among the panelists and women present, a few lessons emerged. Flexibility matters–having control over your schedule will help enable success. Technology aides that flexibility, but should not be an excuse to avoid visibility and relationship building. Tokenism on boards doesn’t help; it will take a critical mass of about 30% women to normalize them. Performance matters; it is a business. Partners matter. Choosing the right life partner may be a woman’s most important business decision.