Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., discusses the global "ambition gap" for women. She spoke Jan. 27 on a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. To watch the speech, visit Bloomberg.com. Sandberg's message is spot on with the latest findings from Harvard Business Review, below.
Since 2000, Catalyst has been gathering information about experiences of men and women in leadership positions. Here, in an article from Harvard Business Review, the researchers debunk four common myths about the gender gap.
The glass ceiling, a phrase popularized in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article, has been invoked for years as the barrier keeping women from reaching the executive ranks in numbers paralleling men. It makes for a compelling image, especially given the stagnation in the representation of women in the executive suites of the largest companies despite their growing presence in the lower ranks. But does it really tell the whole story? At Catalyst, we've wondered whether the problems actually ran deeper in organizations, and what might be thwarting women's progress long before they found themselves bumping up against that barrier.
To find out, we launched a research project comparing the experiences of male and female high-potential employees. In 2000 we started following the careers of MBA graduates from top U.S. schools; in 2008 we expanded the study to also track thousands of MBAs from top schools around the world. This was a good population to study not only because the degree ensured that the group we studied brought comparable credentials to the table; it is also true that companies invest a lot to attract, recruit, and retain MBAs from prestigious programs, and they're often regarded as the next generation of business leaders.
Our study's overall finding is clear: The problem isn't only a late-career phenomenon by which women are denied the big promotion after having advanced steadily alongside men. Rather, the entire pipeline is in peril. More particularly, our research has managed to explode four prevailing myths about the progress of women in workplaces.
Myth #1: It's mainly a pipeline problem.
For the past two decades, the assumption has been that as we reach the point that entry-level cohorts are equally gender divided, those cohorts will in due course yield equal numbers of women and men at the top. We found, however, that even with their very first job after MBA graduation, women start from behind when it comes to level and pay—even after we controlled for prior work experience, industry, region, and other factors. And not only do women lag men at the outset, but over time, as careers progress, they experience less steep rises in both organizational position and pay. Amongst this group of MBA grads, "giving it time" only widens the gap that starts from day one.
Myth #2: Women's relative progress just got a boost from an economic downturn that hit men harder.
Some news media have proclaimed the current downturn to be a "mancession" since waves of layoffs have disproportionately affected male workers. In this bad news some see a silver lining for women, expecting it must mean a smaller gender gap. To the contrary, however, in the realm of high potentials we found senior executive women hit hardest by the downturn. Nineteen percent of the senior women we tracked had lost their jobs due to downsizing or closure versus only six percent of senior men.
Myth #3: To the extent there's still a gap, it's because of women's choices.
We often hear it argued that the uneven accomplishment of men and women is not due to any unfairness but is only the natural outcome of women's lesser ambitions, or their decisions to throttle back on their careers while their children are young. That was a theory easily tested as our high-potential group included many women and men who explicitly aspired to become CEO or reach similarly high office, and who did not have kids. Even among these subsets, women lagged men from day one.
Ernst & Young Chairman and CEO James S. Turley has talked about how important it is to ask women about their aspirations. "When I hear someone say that the woman doesn't want that job promotion, I cringe. Most times they're wrong. Did she really say it? Or did someone say to her that she doesn't want it? There's a huge difference between 'do you want this job?' and 'you don't really want that job, do you?' Or, even worse, the question isn't even asked. It's a silent problem. Asking begins to address the problem, and how we ask matters."
Myth #4: With more mentoring, women will be better prepared to take on the top jobs.
Good mentoring is undeniably valuable to junior managers trying to learn the ropes of an organization—but our research shows it is certainly not a golden ticket. High-potential women actually have more mentors than men, yet the promotion and pay gap persists. A closer look reveals that men's mentors tend to be more senior, putting men in a better position to receive sponsorship.
A sponsor is someone with clout who actively advocates on your behalf at the decision-making table, putting your name forward for promotions and highly visible opportunities. As Gordon M. Nixon, president and CEO of RBC, puts it: "We've all had mentors who have offered advice, but sponsors are the people inside our company who have helped us get to senior levels." Sponsors are, he says, "what you really need to succeed."
When we recently shared our findings with a group of senior leaders, they saw them as a call to action. "This really calls companies to reexamine their recruitment, retention, and advancement efforts," said Janice L. Fields, President and Chief Executive Officer, McDonald's USA LLC. Thomas Falk, Chairman & CEO, Kimberly-Clark Corporation, agreed: "I believe that major interventions are required to build a robust pipeline of women leaders."
And so Catalyst's work will continue. The next questions we address in our tracking of high-potential employees' careers are whether women and men use the same career advancement strategies, and whether they get the same payoff for doing so.
Reprinted from Harvard Business Review