The position of CEO represents the pinnacle of achievement in a business career. CEOs are the figureheads and leaders of their organisation as they shape company culture and play a crucial role in determining the mission of the businesses they serve. So in our capitalist economy, where companies have such a tremendous ability to influence public values and behaviours, top executives play a big role in shaping culture.
But, are the female executives of businesses having their voices and opinions heard over their male colleagues? The influence of a male-dominated business landscape subtly reinforces stereotypes, flattens public perceptions of women, and nudges our culture toward a male bias in a million tiny ways, every day. When just 33 of the 600 companies in the FTSE 100 and S&P 500 are led by women, which is the case today, the female perspective is being vastly underrepresented, and that lack of representation is ultimately to the disadvantage of women worldwide.
The Current Debate
Less than a hundred years ago, women in the UK and US were not allowed to vote. In the past century, we have made tremendous strides in the direction of equality. But we still have a long way to go before women and men have equal opportunities and representation in the workplace and the government. Change, however, is often painful; and as the gap between women and men slowly closes, the inequity gets harder and harder to see. So women fighting for civil rights today often encounter those who argue that women seeking more representation in the business world are in fact leveraging for an unfair advantage.
This argument is based on the notion that if women and men are equal, they ought to be treated as such. Men should not be given special consideration for promotion simply because they are men and assumed to be more capable; companies should not actively recruit based upon considerations of gender, and company cultures should not be altered just so that women can feel more included. The business world is a tough, dog-eat-dog environment, and if women want to prove they are equal to men, they must prove their ability to perform equally well in a challenging workplace.
This is a reasonable enough position, and it is quite widespread. But it based on the flawed assumption that men and women start at some baseline with equal opportunities. For those who have never been disadvantaged by gender, gender-based discrimination is largely invisible; this is because gender biases are ingrained deeply into the structure of our organizations, institutions, and culture. In fact, gender bias is so much a part of the status quo that both men and women enact it because we have all internalized it. The fact of the matter is that when men occupy the highest positions of power and influence, as they have in our society for many centuries, they reinforce the systems that favour and advantage men.
The Hot Points
Fortunately, gender equality is becoming a more prominent discussion in the media today, and when there is an argument, there is change. There has been a slew of headlines lately calling attention to the egregious gaps in pay between men and women and about the scarcity of female CEOs. Men earn far more than women, reach the highest executive levels after fewer years of experience, and face far fewer obstacles on their way to the top.
Though there is clearly inequality in the business world, in the vast majority of cases it is certainly not due to intentional foul play or bias. Rather, it is the manifestation of institutional and cultural problems that we inherited from previous generations. Business leaders want the culture to change, men and women all throughout this country are eager for equality, and we are moving in the right direction. But the question remains: how can we promote equality in the workplace?
The answer is awareness. The more aware we become of how the system privileges and disadvantages certain people, the more quickly and easily we can provoke real change. So to spread awareness, many companies are conducting research and spreading awareness within their ranks. Towergate Insurance, for example, recently released an interactive data graphic on Female CEO equality to illustrate the equality issues the executive class is facing.
The publication explores four main issues:
- Testing Your Assumptions
Interestingly, the piece starts with an interactive component, which invites the audience to guess how many of the six hundred most powerful companies in the western world have female CEOs. The graphic illustrates each company as a dot and the reader is asked to highlight the number with female leaders. It then provides the actual data, and users learn not only how surprisingly few female CEOs there are, but also gain an insight into the way our assumptions are undermining the movement for equality by downplaying the severity of the issue. In fact, just 5.5% of these companies are led by women, and when one pauses to consider what that means for our culture at large, the result is eye-opening.
- Ages and Earnings
The second section examines the way age and salary can be indicators of the way businesses disadvantage women. It takes women longer to rise to the rank of CEO, and they must acquire nearly a year and a half more experience in their fields, on average, before they attain that top position. Whereas men typically reach the CEO rank after 23.8 years in their industry, women get there after an average of 25.1 years. Interestingly, however, female CEOs are typically about a year younger than their male counterparts when they arrive at the leadership position.
But the far more eyebrow-raising figure presented in this section has to do with earnings. Amongst all the companies in the FTSE 100 and S&P 500, men on average earn over £2 million more annually than the average for women. Whereas female CEOs bring in about $4.5 million, male CEOs earn $6.6 million, which amounts to nearly 50% more. So it is no wonder that this particular figure is the one that has received so much attention in the media in recent years. It seems to point to a clear economic disadvantaging of women in the CEO ranks, and it is mirrored by a wage gap that pervades every level of the workforce. Women are paid less to do the same jobs as men.
- Barriers to Female Success
After presenting data about the disadvantages of women in the CEO position, the question is unavoidable: why do these disparities exist? The answer to this question is far from simple, and as we have seen, there is a long chain of historical and social influence driving inequity in the workplace. But we can nonetheless ask some interesting questions to shed light on the obstacles women encounter. One question posed by the data graphic examines the obstacles that women in the workforce perceive themselves battling against. Foremost amongst these is “Non-supportive workplace culture,” with over a third of respondents naming it as a leading challenge they face.
Another prominent obstacle that emerged in the study was the difficulty of balancing family with work. Over a half of the women surveyed claimed that having children made it more difficult for them to advance in their careers, whereas a mere 16% of men felt their kids posed a hindrance to promotion. This is a particularly interesting data point because it seems to highlight a social expectation that mothers be more invested in their children. Of course, it also points to unforgiving company cultures that view pregnancy (or even the possibility of pregnancy) as an economic disincentive for hiring or promoting women to leadership roles.
- Are Perceptions Changing?
The final segment of the publication examines whether or not perceptions are changing. To answer this question briefly, yes, they are. As a culture, we are moving closer to gender equality, and that’s thanks to the fact that there is a rising awareness of the injustice of systems that discriminate against certain groups of people. One heartening litmus of this change comes from Millennials without children, who, when surveyed about that question we posed earlier (“Does having children make it harder to advance in your career?”), displayed no gender bias. Over sixty percent of all respondents, both men and women, agreed that children would hinder their chances of promotion. So it seems social expectations about the distribution of labor within the family unit are changing, and that is a strong indication that perceptions about the gendering of labor are changing as well.
Creating sustainable social change is no easy task. It takes a concerted effort over a long span of time, and it requires the education of millions upon millions of people around the country and the world. But most of all, equality is born from compassion. If we can feel empathy for those who are different than us—be it because of race, gender, ability, income, or background—we can work to heal the institutionalized injustice that pervades our world. So be aware, be conscious that what you say and do has the power to shift our culture, and work daily to promote equality in the workforce. We can all do our part of evolving the business world and making the workplace a space for everyone.