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Good Leaders Promote Gender Equality

Despite great strides made by women in business over the past three decades, they are not widely represented in the business leadership of U.S. corporations. Although women comprise 47% of employees and hold one-third of all the MBAs granted, only 2% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are female. In nearly half of the wider universe of Fortune 1000 companies, there are no women executives.

Despite the high visibility of women like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer in tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, women in tech don’t fare well in gender equity. The larger and better-known companies generally employ 70% men and 30% women. In specifically tech roles, such as coding and engineering, women make up only 16% of employees worldwide.

And in entrepreneurial start-ups? Women start tech companies only to get funding about 2%-3% of the time.

Explanations for Gender Success

While the figures may inch up, overall the lack of women in the upper corporate ranks and in tech is old news. It is generally attributed to the glass ceiling – the metaphor that the very upper ranks may look open but in fact are not. An increase in more powerful women at the pinnacle, the theory goes, would lead to more opportunities for women generally.

Looking at what women themselves think their success is attributable to, though, raises a question about whether all women even see the glass ceiling. A study conducted of what high-achieving women think success factors contributing to success revealed a split. Sixty percent believed that success was due to structural factors, such as limited or no conflicts between family responsibilities and the need to work long hours. Forty percent believed success was meritocratic, stemming from networks, abilities, and ambition. This group didn’t think the glass ceiling had explanatory power.

The researchers note that the 40% of women who believe that success is meritocratic often attribute their success to support by institutions such as business schools. Their belief that success arises solely from merit and ambition aligns with the message of most U.S. business schools, as well as U.S. belief generally.

The 60% who believe that advancement is structural, point to issues such as gender stereotypes being a hindrance to women’s advancement. Women who are liked, for example, are often perceived as not authoritative, while women who are authoritative are not seen as likable.

Fostering Gender Equity

What, then, should be the business strategy for improving gender equity in the corporate suite of American business? One of the implications of the study, after all, was that 40% of women didn’t see the glass ceiling, but only individual actions. Their impetus to mentor and support other women might be overridden by loyalty to the institutions they saw as instrumental in their success.

The researchers suggest that more dissemination of how structural factors affect women would help rectify the 40/60 split. More support networks for women would also help women identify and share the causes and solutions to advancement.