While there are many individual accomplishments to celebrate the overall picture is not rosy, particularly in the U.S. The glass ceiling is still shatterproof.

In an article I wrote in the Financial Post entitled “What’s Happened to the Glass Ceiling,” I said, “Call it a glass ceiling, glass wall or a glass floor—there is still a barrier blocking senior women leaders in organizations. High-powered executive and professional women are increasingly opting out of, being bypassed, or otherwise disappearing from the professional workforce. While this exists, true diversity in organizations will not happen.”

There is clear evidence that the situation for women in North America, but particularly in the U.S. is actually deteriorating according to research data from the workplace, and the clear ultra conservative agenda of right-wing political groups in the U.S. that are attacking women’s rights.

Women hold just 26 percent of executive-level positions in S&P 500 companies — and sadly that is no accident, according to a new study by researchers in the University at Buffalo School of Management.The study, in Personnel Psychology, found that, on average, men are more likely than women to emerge as leaders.

The research team — led by doctoral student Katie Badura and Emily Grijalva, PhD, assistant professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management — aggregated 59 years of research, encompassing more than 19,000 participants and 136 studies from lab, business and classroom settings.

They discovered that although the gender gap has narrowed in recent decades, it still persists. “As a society, we’ve made progress toward gender equality, but clearly we’re not quite there,” Badura says. “Our results are consistent with the struggle many organizations face today to increase diversity in their leadership teams.”

The researchers primarily attribute the gender gap to societal pressures that contribute to gender differences in personality traits. For example, men tend to be more assertive and dominant, whereas women tend to be more communal, cooperative and nurturing. As a result, men are more likely to participate and voice their opinions during group discussions, and be perceived by others as leaderlike.

“We found showing sensitivity and concern for others — stereotypically feminine traits — made someone less likely to be seen as a leader,” Grijalva says. “However, it’s those same characteristics that make leaders effective. Thus, because of this unconscious bias against communal traits, organizations may unintentionally select the wrong people for leadership roles, choosing individuals who are loud and confident but lack the ability to support their followers’ development and success.”

While group size and participants’ ages did not affect the gender gap, the study found the length of time participants spent together was an important factor in whether men or women emerged as leaders. The longer a group spent together, the less gender influenced who emerged as the group’s leader.

“The gender gap was strongest during the first 20 minutes people were together, similar to an initial job interview, but weakened after more than one interaction,” Grijalva says. “During the hiring process, organizations should conduct multiple interviews to reduce gender bias and ensure they’re hiring the best applicant.”

For managers, the researchers suggest promoting the value of communal behaviors in performance evaluations, prompting quieter individuals to share their ideas and being mindful of any unconscious biases you or your staff may have.

“In the Obama White House, female staffers adopted a strategy of amplifying one another’s comments during meetings and giving credit to the individual who said it first, to ensure that women’s voices were being heard,” Badura says. “Tactics like this help the most qualified individuals stand out and emerge into leadership roles — regardless of gender.”

Justin Wolfer, writing in the New York Times , makes the point that “fewer large companies are run by women than by men named John, a sure indicator that the glass celling remains firmly in place in corporate America.”

A 2015 Ernest & Young report examining gender composition on boards and in the senior executive positions showed that women as a percentage of new board members at S&P 1500 companies in 2014 was still only 14% and the percentage of board seats held by women since 2006 has risen only from 11% to 16%. In addition, the percentage of women occupying the role of CEO in the S&P 1500 companies in 2014 was only 4% and that of CFO, 10%.

Previous research from a 2011 Grant Thornton International Business Report found that women now hold 20% of senior management positions globally, a decline from 24% in 2009, and also found that the percentage of organizations that have no women in senior management has risen to 38% in 2011 from 35% in 2009. Only 16% of women in G7 countries held senior roles while 27% in Asia-Pacific did so, with increasing numbers in Hong Kong and Thailand. Globally, only 8% of companies had female CEOs, and in the U.S. only 3.6% of Fortune 500 companies. In contrast in Asian economies, Thailand had 30%, China 19% and Taiwan 18%.

A new report in the Economist, shows that the Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden and Norway still score the highest of 28 countries in the Economist’s index for gender equality with Canada ranking 11th and the U.S. ranking 18th.

The U.S. in particular is taking steps backwards with respect to gender equality. In the field of law, women are more than 50% of the law students, but less than 25% of law firm partners, federal judges, and law school deans. In 2012, women are expected to earn 63% of master’s degrees and 54% of doctoral and professional degrees, but comprise only 20% of full university professors and only 25% of college presidents. Internationally, the U.S. ranks 85th in the world in its share of women in national legislative bodies. Of the largest 100 cities in the U.S., only 9% have female mayors. Various studies have shown that women have made only incremental progress at the highest levels of Fortune 500 companies and the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 19th and Canada 20th respectively among 132 countries, in stark contrast to significantly larger numbers in Europe, Asia and South America. In my article “Why Women May Be Better Leaders Than Men,” I described detailed research on the glass ceiling in current times. As Louise Altman points out in her blog (link is external), “While most Americans tend to think of the U.S. as an egalitarian culture, women in 63 other countries have been elected as heads of state in the past 50 years.”

Debate over the existence of a “glass ceiling” for women for top leadership positions has been renewed by the publication of the book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and some new research data on gender equity. Sandberg is ranked on Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Lean In is a book built around advice for women seeking to succeed, based on  Sheryl Sandberg’s own incredible career success and experience of balancing career and family. Her book is full of pragmatic strategies and tips—everything from how to negotiate a raise to how to stop people pleasing behavior; mentorship; building a satisfying career, and urging women to abandon the myth of “having it all.” Sandberg’s major argument is that if  women want a serious career and rise to the top, they must be passionate about their aspirations and go for it, as successful men do.

Sandberg has attracted both passionate supporters and critics to her message. Sandberg makes the point that is incontrovertible—women are seriously underrepresented in top levels of leadership. In my article “ Why Women May Be Better Leaders Than Men,” I described detailed research on the glass ceiling in current times.

Perhaps the income gap—which is rapidly increasing in the US. And Canada—is at the crux of the backlash to Sandberg. A Pew Center study released in May, 2013 revealed that working mothers are the sole or primary provider in a record 40% of U.S. households. Women still don’t have equal pay in many jurisdictions, and the standard of living for the middle class and the poor continues to decline. And clearly women are at the center of these disturbing trends.

Critics of Sandberg say she does what some other successful women have done—blame other women who are less successful for not trying hard enough. One of Sandberg’s chief critics has been Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who published an article in Atlantic Magazine, argues Sandberg is holding women to unattainable standards for personal and professional success.


Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) chaired the Senate’s Intelligence Committee for five years. So when she suggested that investigators should make public a report on the U.S.’s interrogation techniques because it would “ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted,” one might have seen it as the strong words and fair assessment of a person who has deep experience on the issue. But on Fox News, Bush-era National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden suggested that Feinstein actually encouraged the public release of the interrogation techniques report because of her emotions, implying that because Feinstein was a woman she was too emotional to make rational statements. Feinstein is not the first female political or business leader to be attacked because of her gender, and it primarily comes from conservative politicians and media. It reflects a reluctance of male dominated leaders to accept women as equals.

A Pew Center Global Attitudes Project found that 75% of respondents in the U.S. and 80% in Canada believe that women make equally good political leaders, and the numbers were much higher and Europe, Asia and parts of South America. Another Pew Center study, Social and Demographic Survey found women leaders possessed more leadership traits of honesty, intelligence, compassion and creativity than men, whereas men scored higher only in decisiveness. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, authors of The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Activate, and authors of an article in the Harvard Business Review on the subject said, “based on their 2012 research study of 7,280 leaders in organizations, found that in 12 of the 16 categories of leadership traits, women were rated higher than men, including areas that are traditionally thought of as male strengths (eg: drive for results; taking initiative). Other studies by the Harvard Business School and Catalyst Corporation found that large companies with the highest proportions of women in senior management significantly outperformed those with the lowest proportion in terms of return on investment.

For the past few years, I have been working as a mentor and leadership trainer with graduates of several business schools in British Columbia, the majority of whom are female, and I must conclude that their preparation, positive attitude and capabilities as a group are far superior to the male students.

So what are we to conclude and do about the thickening glass ceiling? Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Robin Ely argue that a critical mass of women in senior leadership and on boards is required, and that may mean passing legislation as Norway has done, required at least 40% female board members.

A 2011 McKinsey and Company study which reviewed over 100 existing research studies on the subject and interviewing over 2,800 male and female leaders, concluded that there were four problems that must be overcome: structural-the lack of role models for women, exclusion from informal networks, and absence of sponsors; lifestyle issues-women who also value family life and are not prepared to commit to an executive’s 24/7 working lifestyle; imbedded institutional mindsets—entrenched beliefs held by male managers that women can’t handle leadership jobs; and imbedded individual mindsets that indicate that women are less satisfied with careers than men.

Clearly, leaders in our private and public organizations, and politicians need to take note of this growing problem in North America, particularly the U.S. Perhaps a clue to the present start and stop progress is given by feminist movement pioneer Gloria Steinem: “Classically speaking, resistance to change comes at two points. The first is right at the beginning, when you break the rules and people say, No, women can’t do that. And the second comes when you reach a critical mass, as if the other group might have great influence, or, in the case of women, might actually outnumber them. We’re now in the second stage of resistance.”

Recent research from Concordia University by Steven Applebaum shows that even though women may actually be better suited than men to hold leadership positions, only 3% of top executives among Fortune 500 firms are women. He says that’s because “women are still perceived as inferior leaders.” He goes to say “This ill-conceived notion needs to change—and fast. At the current rate, we won’t see gender equality in the boardroom until 2081.”

In an article in the Harvard Business Review by Hermina Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb, contend companies need to take additional action by educating men and women about second-generation bias; have women internalize a leadership identity; and develop a sense of purpose. Second-   generation bias is defined as a “paucity of role models for women, gendered career paths and gendered work, women’s lack of access to networks and sponsors, and leadership being defined in masculine characteristics.”

Tamara Vrooman, CEO of Vancity Savings, Canada’s largest credit union, is a Canadian example of a female who has reached a top leadership position at a young age, after a career as Deputy Minister of Finance for the B.C. Government. In an interview with me, Vrooman said “Women do have to be passionate about their goals…but this doesn’t mean being like men. One of the reasons we want to have more women in leadership positions because they bring a different perspective than men.” Vrooman went on to say that there’s a “superwoman” tension, with an imbalance of expectations in the home that impacts women’s careers. “You can have 50/50 in the workplace,” Vrooman argues, “but it’s still 90/10 in the home.” She agrees with Sanford’s contention that women who aspire to top leadership positions have to choose a life partner who believes in equality in the home as well as work. Finally, Vrooman says that the culture of organizations has embraced a stereotype of what leadership should look like, which is predominantly male in characteristic, and that has to change.

In a new book, The Athena Doctrine, co-authors Michael D’Antonio and John Gerzema reported their research of 64,000 people in 13 diverse countries in the Americas, Europe and Asia that indicate widespread dissatisfaction with skills and competencies that are perceived as more feminine. In particular, that view was shared by nearly 80% of the millennial generation (both men and women)–most notably in highly masculine societies like Brazil, South Korea, Japan and India. Two-thirds of survey respondents felt that “the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.

In the final analysis, Sandberg would argue that women must take responsibility to lean in and make it happen. Surely organizations and the men who run them should share that responsibility. Otherwise, it would be akin to arguing that equal achievement in civil rights was the sole responsibility of the African-American people in the U.S., with no responsibility for government and business.

Copyright: Neither this article or a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.

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