There are just as many chief executives in Fortune 500 companies named John as there are women. The 23 female chief executives, representing just about 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, provide a lens into how male-dominant industry has seen slow development towards female inclusion at the top. Even more discouraging is the fact that the inability to see a professional woman in a sea of James, Michaels and others is a permeating illustration across industries.
Inspired by an Ernst & Young report in 2015, The New York Times began tracking a Glass Ceiling Index, which shows that the largest percentage increase in female representation from 2015 to 2018 was in democratic senators, with an increase from 30 percent to 35 percent, and corporate board members, with an increase from 16 percent to 19 percent. The term ‘glass ceiling’ is as old as the early 1980s, referring to the “persistent failure of women to climb as far up the corporate ladder as might be expected from their representation in the working population as a whole,” according to The Economist. The ceiling acts as a career barrier for women, made of glass because, as women begin their careers from the bottom, the barriers stopping them from gaining equality in the workplace in the future are often invisible.
In a timely reveal along with the updates to the Glass Ceiling Index, several multinational companies have come under fire for inequality at the top. Senior female executives at Visa Inc., for instance, approached CEO Alfred Kelly on May 11 to discuss the lack of growth opportunities for women and as The Wall Street Journal expected, the “’bro’ culture that excludes women.” Just the prior week, Fast Company reported that Nike CEO Mark Parker apologized to staff for a ‘boy’s club’ environment at the company after a group of women conducted an internal survey of their female peers at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, revealing a toxic workplace of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The rare, internal expose led to the exodus of at least six top male executives. In addition to harassment cases, including a boss who tried to forcibly kiss a female subordinate, female leaders in the company spoke out regarding their “blunted career paths,” in which women felt marginalized in meetings and were consistently passed over for promotions.
The glass ceiling is not only about power positions but also about pay. Fast Company found last year that the highest earning male CEO, Charter Communications’ Thomas Rutledge, made $98 million in 2016 compared to the highest earning female CEO, HP’s Meg Whitman, who earned $35.6 million the same year. Yet, recent headlines feeding off the annual Equilar/Associated Press CEO Pay Study from 2017 have falsely boasted that the average compensation for female CEOs was about $14.5 million, whereas for men it was $12.6 million. However, of the 346 CEOs surveyed, only 21 were female. Discussions centered around these kinds of headlines create misleading markers of process; inaccurately suggesting that “America’s biggest corner offices are a haven for gender equity,” as said by Fortune.
Needless to say, the glass ceiling doesn’t look like it’s about to shatter any time soon. While companies must reform, the government’s inability to become a leader has also hurt progress. In 1991, the government was so concerned with this issue that a Glass Ceiling Commission was set up with a mission to conduct studies and prepare recommendations regarding the elimination of artificial barriers to women and minority advancement. After five years of publishing two reports, the Commission completed its mandate in 1996 and no longer exists today.
Since then, the conversations around gender equality at the workplace have continued, taking different forms at the government level. Yet, despite these discussions coming front and center, the figures tell a different story about progress in government itself. For instance, last year, the government awarded just 5 percent of $508.4 billion in federal contracts to women-owned businesses (WOBs), although women own more than a third of all businesses. Not a single one of the top 50 most expensive contracts awarded by the government in 2016 and 2017 were to women or minority-led businesses. Moreover, even though the government has set standards to award a certain number of contracts to minority-led businesses, the government’s lack of proper oversight has reduced these standards to mere guidelines.
Some tips for women looking to make it big: an Oxford University study called “Claiming the corner office,” published in February, identified three commonly discussed ‘self-themes’ by female CEOs, which include self-acceptance, self-development and self-management. Women in the upper echelons of management found that they needed to see themselves as leaders first before developing responsibilities for higher leadership and then defining their unique management style, which is often partially influenced by men around them based on a combination of “stereotypically masculine traits, like assertiveness, with feminine ones, like nurturing,” according to the study.
Women continue to push the limits, challenged by the current male-dominated composition of leadership. In the 1970s when today’s senior managers were graduating, less than 5 percent of MBA and law degrees were being awarded to women, according to The Economist. In comparison, women today are earning more than 35 percent and 40 percent of MBA and law degrees respectively. As more qualified female candidates enter the workforce, it remains to be seen how they will reshape identity at the top.