Women have made significant gains in the executive suites of corporate America, capturing top CEO spots and holding prestigious board positions. But when it comes to navigating the secondary tier of upper-level management, many find the corporate glass ceiling is still firmly in place.
A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review demonstrates that women make up slightly less than 50 percent of the workforce, but they account for only 10 percent of the senior management positions at Fortune 500 companies.
To suggest there is an overarching reason why women are failing to make further strides misses the point, according to the study's authors. Rather, they say that because men have written the rule book on corporate management, there are subtle forces that may not be considered discriminaory, pervading the companies and keeping women out of top management slots.
"It's not the ceiling that's holding women back," said co-author Debra Meyerson, a professor at Stanford University. "It's the whole structure of the organization in which we work - the foundations, the beams, the very air."
Meyerson and her colleague, Simmons College professor Joyce Fletcher, say traditional human resource solutions that strive to make the workplace more equitable have failed because they address the symptoms of discrimination rather than the cause.
For instance, women learn that to succeed in corporate America they have to act more like men and less like themselves. Or women find themselves guided to career slots that are deemed more "suitable," such as human resources. These are necessary positions, the authors say, but too often, not the ones from which promotions to upper level management are made.
A study published in November by Catalyst, a women's advocacy group, found that 11.9 percent of the 11,681 corporate officers in America's top 500 firms were women, up from 8.7 percent five years ago.
But the group also found that women are most likely to be in "staff" jobs, such as human relations and public relations and not in "line" jobs. It is from line officer positionsthose who run the factories, head the sales staffs and supervise the accountingthat promotions to senior management tend to come, the group said.
While there is no magic solution, workplaces should strive to recognize, value and award what Meyerson and Fletcher call the "invisible work," the kinds of tasks that are necessary to keep a company functioning but rarely get noticed.
They also suggest companies should move away from forcing job seekers to aggressively "pitch" their strengths during job interviews. Instead, the company should spend more time talking with a candidate to get a better sense of their merits and abilities.
Ellen Hancock, president and chief executive of Exodus Communications, a leading Internet host for businesses, agrees with the study.
There is a real problem when there are so few women running the top 500 companies in the U.S. she said. She urged women "to make sure that the corporate culture of their company supports them," adding, "If not, they should move."