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There are only 3 reasons women don’t make it to the top

November 13, 2011

It’s true in higher education, it’s true in law firms, it’s true in hospitals (it’s even true in monarchies!): women can get far, but they can’t get all the way to the top.

In Europe, fewer than 10% of universities are run by women. In Fortune 500 companies, about 17% of lawyers are women. Even in a relatively egalitarian country like Norway, a man in healthcare is much more likely than a woman to achieve a position of leadership.

There are only three possible explanations for the lower numbers of women at the top level of these organizations.

  1. Women are not capable of doing the work that is required at the top.
  2. Women do not have the desire to be at the top.
  3. There are structural impediments preventing women from reaching the top.

That’s it. Those are the three options.

It may be a little of one, it may be a lot of the other, but those are the alternatives we have to explain the relative absence of women at the top. Whatever explanation is right for your organization, there are good reasons to believe you’ll be better if you work for change. The only way this can happen, is through leadership.

Any organization with fewer women at the top than at the bottom should ask itself which of these explanations apply to it.

If you want to understand what happens to women’s careers where you work, you might start by asking if the problem is that women simply aren’t capable. It’s a risky question. It’s one I don’t spend much time on. But even in higher education, there are those who do.

Larry Summers, former President of Harvard, suggested once that women are inherently less capable than men of succeeding in math and science. And once was all it took; shortly thereafter, he lost his job!

But a lack of fingerspitzengefühl isn’t the only way to find oneself defending the first option. In the wake of the Summers fiasco, Harvard psychologists Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke debated the claim that there is variation in the cognitive capacities of men and women, and Pinker defended the assertion that we should expect to find group-wise cognitive differences.

What about desire? At my university, about 40% of the associate professors are women while about 25% of the full professors are. Those who don’t make it to the highest rank aren’t leaving. But do they simply not want to get all the way to the top? Could there be anything to this argument? Is there any reason to believe it might be somewhat true?

Women on their way to top leadership positions often emphasize different approaches to leadership, as the McKinsey Women Matter reports make clear. Women are better at collaboration than men, it is claimed, and collaborative behavior can at times appear indecisive or deferential, as recently argued in Collaboration’s Hidden Tax on Women’s Careers, by  Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt.

This study, along with the related research, does not conclude that women lack the ambition to get to the top. It concludes that women’s approach to the workplace in general and to leadership in particular, can have the superficial appearance of a lack of ambition, when judged against a male corporate culture.

The third possible explanation for having few women at the top is that there are structural barriers; in short, that there is discrimination. And, alas, the body of research on hiring and promotion makes it increasingly clear that there are in fact structural impediments for women. Men and women are judged by different criteria, they are expected to perform differently, and they are rewarded differently for the same accomplishments.

The challenges here are many, but the first step is to see the problem. And it’s a problem that won’t fix itself, not even with time.

You owe it to yourself and your organization to ask these questions:

  • Are there disproportionately fewer women at the highest level of our institution?
  • Is that because women are less capable of doing the job?
  • Is it because they don’t want the job?
  • Or is there something else that gets in the way?

The questions here should not be answered with anecdotes. There is extensive research from many domains addressing these questions. Bring that research into your organization. Find out how it applies where you work. Be honest about your answers. And then make things better.

After all, making your organization better for women will make it better for everyone.


Related entry: The motherhood penalty: It’s not children that slow mothers down

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Halvorsen permalink
    November 14, 2011 09:45

    I would like to add a fourth reason, I’m not sure women are as aggressive as men. I currently work at a small language school that has two male co-owners and a female academic director (me). We also employ a range of teachers on a freelance basis. One of the co-owners in particular has a strong belief that it is better for business to include women at the top, which probably helped me to achieve my current position. If it hadn’t been for his push, I’m not sure I would have reached this level at nearly the same speed. It isn’t that I don’t want the responsibility and it isn’t that I lack desire, but I don’t think I push as hard or in as obvious a way as my male colleagues. Perhaps this goes under your paragraph on women appearing to lack ambition, but I find that in salary negotiations as well, my husband is much more forceful in his demands than I would feel comfortable with.

    • November 14, 2011 15:53

      There’s good research showing that no matter how aware parents are of what they’re doing, that boys and girls are raised very differently exactly on the point of showing aggression. So, your suspicion is exactly right. One could think of this as a lack of ambition, but I tend to think of it more as structural. Workplaces are set up such that the behavior that gets you to the top is more stereotypically associated with men than women. So, if we think it’s important to have women at the top, then we have to think about the structures in our workplaces and the mismatches they create. Regarding negotiations, this is a classic area and explains much of the salary discrepancy that can be found *within the same kinds of positions*. The response has to be twofold: Training everyone to work with the system as it is, and working to change the system in ways we think are important.

  2. Gillian Ramchand permalink
    November 14, 2011 13:40

    Good piece, filled with a lot of good sense that I hope people will take to heart. At the bottom of the blog, as I finished reading, an ad came up for with a picture of a pretty, blond, woman about to eat a strawberry. Sigh.

  3. November 15, 2011 02:19

    In my experience and research, it’s maybe a little of two, and a lot of three, as you conclude. I’m consistently stunned at the amount of discriminatory resistance that I encounter in my male-dominated field of engineering. Consider the following study that was recently done at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on the attrition of women in the engineering profession:

    I’m leaving in three weeks to go on a special diplomatic mission to Brazil as one of eight U.S. women scientists under the aegis of the State Department, where we will examine the recruitment, retention, and advancement challenges of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I look forward to the onslaught of literature that I’m likely to receive… Hopefully I’ll be able to bring back some tools and insight that will help my industry, and more importantly, that I’ll be able to get someone to actually implement my suggestions.

    Thank you for this post. It’s important that we discuss this issue more openly.

    • November 15, 2011 14:46

      Thanks for that good feedback and the resource. You might enjoy looking at the materials that emerged from the European Commission’s “genSET” project — both the report with recommendations and the background materials are available at

      • November 15, 2011 19:50

        Thank you; I will definitely look that up. Upon first glance, it’s a very good resource that will be very pertinent and helpful to my upcoming trip!

  4. Jo Bakken permalink
    November 15, 2011 12:59

    I have discussed this topic with my fellow students several times in the past. Generally, I do agree that there are some social and structural impediments that prohibit women from reaching the top levels of the organizational hierarchies. At the same time, I also believe that the debate suffers from “sosiological fallacy”, in which every aspect of human behaviour is explained by socially constructed norms and structures. If considered within a framework of rational choice, explanation two seems to be the most likely explanations, as women may not have the same incentives as men to reach for top positions (lower payoffs from power). First and foremost, as it is still expected that women should take a larger share of responsibility at home, having a top rank position may lead to more stress. Secondly, in a evolutionary perspective, men should have stronger incentives to reach the top of society, as this is the most clear cut signal of proper gens. For women, on the other side, being powerful may unfortunately have the opposite effect, as men may regard these women to be less prospective mothers of their children.

    • November 15, 2011 14:50

      RIght. But in the case of Associate Professors vs Full Professors, I don’t think there’s much of any (maybe none) difference in terms of stress. Here anyway, in Norway, the job is really the same, and I think that’s largely true in the US, too. And I would add that there really is research now showing that men and women are treated differently e.g. in evaluation settings. So, while there may be more women than men who are satisfied staying at the Associate level, in an overall weighting of various factors, I think the evidence of structural impediments still has to be dealt with. See, for example, my: Peer evaluation is not objective: Academia and Law Firms

  5. November 15, 2011 17:30

    Nice article! This piece got me thinking…

    I have a mom (and dad), six sisters (and two brothers), a wife of 25 years, three daughters (and two sons) and a granddaughter who lives with me as I work from home. My wife works for a Fortune 10 company and has had positions of leadership there. I have been in the professional world of sales and marketing since 1986. I think that the answers is probably some of all three options.

    But my real guess is that #2 (lack of interest) is probably the greatest reason why there is not a higher percentage of women in top leadership roles. I think that they mostly do not value the top positions and/or are unwilling to sacrifice other things in their lives to live and operate in those roles.

    I think this is obvious to anyone who actually talks to a large, diverse number of women.

    MOST woman simply don’t care for what comes with the “package” deal of the top roles. But I am sure that a percentage of women DO care and those numbers probably are showing up as the numbers of leadership positions filled by women (give or take a point or two,,,).

    It seems that the strong-willed women who seek these rough-and-tumble top leadership roles want support for their positions and seek to bring others to their point of view. I would think that this is the genesis and the premise for #3 (structural impediments) option. I have learned that a vocal minority can distort reality into letting us believe that #3 is the only reasonable option.

    I am not judging women or men who seek equality in the ranks; I am just wondering if they are projecting their opinions on to the rest of the world who isn’t seeking a remedy that makes their climb easier. In fact, by setting up the premise where the #1 and #2 options are easily ridiculed and the #3 option has a viable chance to impact change, isn’t this just then positioning the #1 and #2 positions as “straw dogs” for the purpose for action (ie. changing rules or laws that force behaviors or practices toward an objective)?

    Why is the presumption that a low percentage of people in any given role seen as wrong, or some kind of problem? I have never seen complaints about the number of women trash collectors being so low because of institutional discrimination…

    To illustrate my point, tell me if you would ever see the equally apt, but contrarian assertions with this premise and set of questions:

    “What I want to know is how come the percentage of stay-at-home dads is so low…”
    “What institutional or sociological bigotry is at play that is keeping men from these domestic roles that offer so many benefits?”
    “Or is it that men are simply not up to the tasks that the roles demand?”
    “Or perhaps is it that they just are not interested or value the things that the roles provide?”
    “Do they not want to sacrifice things in their lives for the benefits that these domestic positions give?”


    Also, I wonder if anyone dives deep into studying the seemingly counter-intuitive premise that “‘structural impediments’ are simply evolutionary safeguards that provide the balance society needs to propagate most efficiently and effectively.” I imagine that this study might not happen because their would be no payoff for the #3 position in this.


    I say let freedom reign and set up a playground where everyone can be what their effort, skills, intellect, and gifts allows them to be while punishing no one for their successes.

    The happiest people I know understand that life is unfair. They simply do their best with what they have and live within their value-structure. Let the leaders lead and the trash collectors pick up garbage. Let women be women and let men be men, however this shakes out.

    Tom Schulte
    Atlanta, GA

    • November 15, 2011 17:51

      Thanks very much for that thoughtful response, Tom — feel free to RT if you get the urge 🙂
      A few thoughts on your thoughts:
      —What I see in several settings is women who get to the next-highest level but not the highest level. I’m in the university world, so the concrete case of this for me is women who advance to the rank of Associate Professor but then not to the rank of Full Professor. Where I live, in Norway, and also in the U.S., there is very little difference (often, none!) between the work of an Associate Professor and the work of a Full Professor. The “package” just isn’t that different; teaching load, research expectations, administrative work – those things are the bulk of the job, independent of rank.
      —I agree that #1 is perhaps a little bit of a straw man, although I tried to suggest that people could actually be found who take it seriously by mentioning Pinker’s presentation. But #2 definitely isn’t intended as such. I think that organizations should create a variety of career paths, and even in universities, I don’t think there’s any problem if some people don’t want to be a Full Professor. There can be many perfectly legitimate reasons for that. But when the desire is there, there are still impediments, which brings me to the next point.
      —I think it’s incredibly important not to draw conclusions on the basis of anecdotes, so I have to offer my friendly disagreement about what is obvious. The issues are super subtle, and there are lots and lots of good studies. For example, there are a lot of studies that simulate promotion situations, so that the profiles of the hypothetical candidates can be held constant, varying only their names (i.e. genders). The results of these studies are almost depressing, in terms of the changes in evaluations that emerge. And we have research from actual situations also, showing that women who are evaluated for promotion in academia have to have many times more scientific publications than a man to be judged as equal to a man by a committee. These are the kinds of things that lead me to conclude that #3 is a significant factor. In this context, I allow myself to recommend “Peer evaluation is not objective: Academia and Law Firms” and “Equality targets as a leadership tool” — I cite several studies there that seem compelling to me.
      —As for your questions, which I think are right on target, here in Norway, we’ve spent months debating exactly your first point. It’s seen as a problem here that when couples can freely divide one year of paid maternity leave, that the fathers tend to take so little. Mandatory measures have been introduced (i.e. of the 12 months, the man must take at least 2 or else those months are lost to the couple) that have changed the situation. You can like or not like that policy, but the point here is that the matter is actually discussed. Indeed, that debate has touched on all the issues you mention.
      —Research on bullying in the workplace shows that workplaces that are predominately one sex (either men or women) have much more bullying than those that are balanced.
      —Your last two paragraphs leave me wondering a little. It seems like “let freedom reign” means that people “can be” what their skills take them to, i.e. that rewards come to those who perform. Yet your last paragraph seems to say that you have to know life is unfair. I think I’m a fairly happy guy, and I think I know life is unfair. But in some situations, I think that can be changed. That’s what motivates me to work on this issue — and I hope you’ll join me!

      • November 15, 2011 19:48

        Agreed. I don’t think we’re content to sit back and perpetuate a situation that is consistently unfair to one half of the population. One thing that I typically use to see whether or not an argument passes the ‘sniff’ test is to take a statement and switch out “women” with “blacks” or “hispanics” or another typically marginalized or stereotyped group and see whether or not I find it to be inflammatory in a different context.

        So one of the above statements would become: “It seems that the strong-willed blacks who seek these rough-and-tumble top leadership roles want support for their positions and seek to bring others to their point of view… I am not judging blacks or whites who seek equality in the ranks; I am just wondering if they are projecting their opinions on to the rest of the world who isn’t seeking a remedy that makes their climb easier.” Yikes! Inflammatory? Yes, and so if I’d been the one to write it, I would take that as a cue to examine the basis of that statement and see whether or not I actually meant what I was saying, along with the connotations and subtext that come along with it. Is it ever fair and just to imply that a certain group is imagining a perceived unfairness in the structure when there’s a wealth of evidence to support that this unfairness is not imagined?

        In order to properly unpack these three explanations, we also must be very careful to maintain objectivity about them and see whether or not the conclusions we’re drawing are based upon assumptions that, when unhinged from social contexts, are morally repugnant. I don’t dispute that there are differences between men and women, but I tend to believe (and yes, this is personal and anecdotal… I realize that I ought to do more research on this aspect of gender) that these differences are conditioned rather than structural. The aspect that I find repugnant is that my brain may be less structurally capable of processing information than a man’s brain, and this is precisely why Lawrence Summers isn’t in charge over at Harvard anymore.

        Tom, I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that reason 2 probably has more to do with why there are fewer women in positions of leadership than Curt has proposed, but I would ask you to consider the idea that women may choose not to take on these roles because these roles have been tailored to the sociological conditioning that men have traditionally received, and that these roles may be in conflict with the sociological conditioning that women have traditionally experienced. It isn’t necessarily that women are inherently incapable of leading a group in a business environment, but rather that by the natures that they have formed within the context of our society, they encounter so much friction against their values and goals that their desire to hold those positions wanes. And so, we lose our most balanced, well-rounded women leaders somewhere along the way because of an inflexible corporate structure that has centered itself around the values that are held paramount in the male social construct. (So, reason 2 turns into reason 3, a little bit. The situation is complex and nuanced, so a blurred line is unsurprising.) This idea is pointed to in the UWM study I mentioned in my comment above… I think that an inability for ambitious women to progress from the second-in-command level to the command level is where the third reason in its purest form most often comes into play.

        I would love to hear feedback on this idea.

  6. November 17, 2011 14:03

    Let’s take out the sexual aspect. What do you observe: most people who are at the top are ambitious and like to show their muscles in a very simian way.

    When you observe most traditional companies and structures, you are will be surprised to discover how stupid or unskilled some of top people are. But, they were able to show they muscles all the way to the top.

    In Western Europe, this even goes as far as setting your salary: in you are “just good enough” for a job, you will receive a salary which is only based on your negotiation skills. If you are very good at your job, doing extra work for hour, bringing lot of stuffs to the company, you will not earn one cent more. You might be less paid (and less considered) than someone who is barely competent but can show muscles and is a good negotiator.

    What does it teach us?

    From our genes and millions of year of evolution, males have learned to show their muscles and to take into their team the young with the biggest muscles. Women are less enclined to play that role.

    So, men with big muscles and no brain take people like them. That’s all. If you observe most women who have top position in the business world, they just act like that: aggressive, showing muscles.

    The main problem is not that women are “prevented” to reach the top. It’s that reaching the top is nowhere related to intelligence nor skills. It’s a pure animal, stupid game. A lot of very bright men are also prevented to reach the top because of that. In fact, most are. Because it’s very very rare to find someone intelligent *and* who likes rolling biceps for the sake of it.

    • November 18, 2011 13:39

      Thanks for those thoughts. If it’s try that getting to the top takes a set of skills that are more present in group A than group B, I would take that as a structural impediment for those in group B to get to the top. So, from that perspective, I think we’re on the same page.

  7. justonemorething permalink
    November 18, 2011 20:51

    Good discussion. I do think that academics tend to discount the very real role of biology in these matters. Women are hard-wired to put children and family first by nature; even so-called liberated women must admit this is true; though sometimes they deny it, they are only fooling themselves, not nature. That basic instinct is always there under the surface.

    • November 18, 2011 20:57

      Thanks. I wonder if you think of your point as falling more into the “can’t do it” or “don’t want to do it” category.

  8. Get Your Leadership BIG On! permalink
    November 25, 2011 21:05

    Curt – Based on my personal Fortune 100 company experience and research done with Anne Pershel, I concur with points 2 and 3. However, point one is problematic!

    Systems tend to, and in fact are designed to, maintain the status quo. For the most part, women did not create the status quo in business. The fabric of leadership has been woven almost entirely of traits typically associated with masculine archetypes, such as being dominant, competitive, and task-oriented. Leadership must be redefined so “power over” is no longer the default operating mode. To do this, women must gain power in a system at odds with the way they are in order to change that system – and be perceived as having the skills necessary to sit in the top seats.

    • November 25, 2011 21:30

      Thanks so much for that comment. I actually meant option 1 as more or less a “straw man.” My idea was simply to try to think of what the logical possibilities might be, and the only options, as far as I can see, are (i) lack of capacity, (ii) lack of desire, or (iii) barriers. I think barriers are a much bigger problem than most men are willing to admit, and I think many of them have emerged for exactly the reasons you mention. And I think your last sentence is especially important: part of the challenge today is to facilitate success in the system as it is — because that’s how it is, and change is slow — and then as a result of that, to try to change things more quickly.

      • Get Your Leadership BIG On! permalink
        November 25, 2011 22:00

        I’m moving more and more into the space that leadership as it is practiced, defined and rewarded needs to change. On a rant one day, I shared some thoughts “Square Pegs, Sacred Cows and Starting Over with Leadership” on Gary Hamel’s Management Innovation eXchange!

  9. November 26, 2011 11:11

    Gender is on relationship between women and men on the roles and responsibilities not competition.
    Need: Gender Mainstreaming Training of Trainers is the solution for all levels and places.

    • November 26, 2011 11:16

      I certainly agree that heightened awareness at all levels of organizations is a key to any progress. Thanks for your comment.


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