In the past four to five decades of moving toward greater equality for women in the workforce, access to the boardroom and to the C-suite have often been seen as indicating women’s progress generally. But is increasing access to corporate domains of power always linked to improvement in other workplace issues for women, such as pay equity and gender discrimination?
The number of women CEOs and corporate board members is often taken as an index of women’s economic progress in business.
Progress in the C-Suite Does Not Necessarily Equate to Progress Elsewhere
A recent Harvard Business Review argues that no, it isn’t. There isn’t necessarily any connection between women gaining key slots in business leadership and in other women’s workforce issues.
For example, the representation of women at the chief executive officer and board level has improved significantly over the past 25 years. In 1995, for example, no Fortune 500 company had a woman CEO and there was very little female representation on corporate boards. By 2018, in contrast, 73 women had served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst. Women represented 22% of slots on corporate boards.
That’s still far from parity, of course, but it does illustrate dramatic inroads. But, as the HBR points out, there’s no evidence that these moves improve issues such as the gender gap in pay between men and women. In fact, it observes that a country like Iceland, where women are much closer to equal boardroom representation with men, at 44%, continues to pay men, on average, 14% more than women.
The gender pay gap in the U.S. has actually proved surprisingly stubborn. It has improved in recent decades, but overall the rise equates to an average of just $0.04 each year since 1960.
But issues like the pay gap between men and women aren’t necessarily addressed by the CEO/boardroom access of women.
Perceptions Are a Risk
So if metrics such as increasing the number of women in the C-suite and boards don’t necessarily match women’s progress elsewhere, what does it mean for the leadership development and business progress of women?
The news is not good. Conflating measures of women’s progress means, among other things, that progress is one area (the boardrooms) can mask or shift perceptions away from the fact that progress either isn’t being made at all or isn’t being made to the same degree in other areas. As the HBR observes, that can reduce or even eliminate concerns about gender disparities in business.
Even more, it can lead to numerous areas of gender inequality being addressed. After all, issues like women’s access to venture capital funding or expertise in starting a business, or underrepresentation in areas like technological innovation, are also issues very worthy of concern. Causes of these issues need to explored and solutions determined. The focus on boardroom and C-suite progress can lead away from these types of questions and solutions, not toward them.
Ultimately, the conflation of upper-level corporate progress and other areas could lead to gender inequality becoming less addressed and viewed as less important over time. It’s important to realize the causes of women’s gender disparities in the workplace are multiple, and need multiple solutions.