Women at the Top: Not So Fast

Women are still fighting the fight their mothers--and grandmothers--began.

Posted Mar 22, 2011

According to a survey, Pipeline's Broken Promise, from Catalyst, a global organization that evaluates women's progress in the workforce, "for the past two decades leaders have counted on parity in education, women's accelerated movement into the labor force, and company-implemented diversity and inclusion programs to yield a robust talent pipeline where women are poised to make rapid gains to the top. But results of this study show that these hopes were ill-founded-when it comes to top talent, women lag men in advancement, compensation, and career satisfaction. The pipeline is not healthy; inequality remains entrenched."

Fortune Magazine reports that in the top Fortune 500 companies, only 15 women are CEOs. Women with MBAs earn an average of $4,600 less than men with the same degree. The Institute for Women's Policy Research revealed that pretty much across the board men continue to work in the highest paid jobs and when men and woman have the same job, men earn more. That holds true if the job is as a registered nurse or home health aide, teacher, or administrative assistant. Looking at some of the highest paid occupations--physicians and surgeons--male doctors have the income edge over women. Economist Linda Babcock and writer Sara Laschever point out another disturbing imbalance in their book, Women Don't Ask: Women own about 40 percent of all businesses in the U.S. but receive only 2.3 percent of the available equity capital needed for growth. Male-owned companies receive the other 97.7 percent.

For most women today, staying "home" is not an option. The Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of men and women polled believe that both husband and wife should contribute to the family income. But having a child or more children becomes an issue of how much you are willing to give up. The conflict between work and family life remains formidable and very personal.

In so many ways, women are still fighting the fight their mothers and grandmothers began. "When we talk about moms having careers, we must stop positioning it as a choice; we never position a career this way for men, including dads," Marias Thalberg, founder of Executive Moms, an online community for working mothers, reminds us. Small life changes occur for most men when they become fathers, but women confront the prospect of needing to take a leave from work followed by the challenges of re-entry into the workforce each time they have a baby.

When professional women take breaks for childcare and want to return to work, they have trouble finding full-time jobs again. Some 43 percent of mothers with advanced degrees take time off, but Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder and president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, advises that such interruptions reduce earning power and sabotage promotions. Not so for men. Hewlett says, "Despite changes in the workforce, the world of work is still largely organized for a family model that is increasingly rare--one with a stay-at-home caregiver."

Women who work are devoted to their families and find ways to put their children first. They have had to redefine their roles and seek assistance from partners, relatives in their extended family, and friends. Working women have become masters of multitasking; and timing can become a major factor.  By the time you feel secure at the "office," the window of opportunity for having children may be closing as Tina Fey recently lamented.

Ironically, the women's movement may have created discontentment for women who want to work and want families. In a New York Times op-ed column he titled "Liberated and Unhappy," Ross Douthat underscored the problem when he said, "The structures of American society don't make enough allowances for the particular challenges of motherhood."

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, once a leader in bias against women, has corrected much of the formerly unfair treatment of female professors. More broadly, employers generally do not make accommodations to help women or mothers, and some could be called obstructionists. How do we level the playing field and speed up women's slow climb to the top?

What have your experiences been? Understanding employer? Or, not very?

For more on this topic see: The Great Divide: Working Moms Vs. Childless Women

Copyright 2011 by Susan Newman