02/17/2011 03:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Forget The End Of Men; Executive Women Still Fighting for Fair Chance

Fifteen years ago, The Economist predicted the end of men ("The Male Dodo" December 23, 1995), provocatively stating "by the end of the second quarter of the 21st century, when a child born now will be mature, it will be time to wonder if men have a future." Compared to girls, boys die more often from disease, they do worse in school, they're eight times more likely to be murdered or murderers, and in the world of work, their skills (brawn) are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the age of information and service work (brains). So we women should be kicking back, relaxing as we are (theoretically) becoming the new captains of industry. Right?

Not so fast. When you parse the numbers, the outlook is mixed. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that in 2009, nearly 60 percent of all women worked, and more than two-thirds of them had college degrees. In contrast, 72 percent of men worked, but only one-third of them had college degrees.

Women tend to be clustered in the finance, insurance, education and health services industries, but are still quite rare in manufacturing, transportation, construction and logging. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of the top 20 fastest growing occupations are in the healthcare field -- an area where women excel and are already well represented. The other expanding careers are as veterinarians, veterinary technicians, athletic trainers, financial examiners and various information technology specialists. Most of those jobs require some sort of advanced education, and since women currently earn around 60 percent of all associate, bachelor and master degrees, they are poised to fill the demand in these growing industries.

But when it comes to earnings, women continue to lag. They earned 80 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2009. Even at the highest levels of corporations, women still face a 10 percent earnings penalty against similarly qualified men.

And they are little more than a fly on the wall at the board level. Only 13 percent of U.S. directors are female, a number that has hardly budged over the past several years.

Finally, women hold only 14 percent of corporate executive jobs in the Fortune 500.

What is the cause of these inequities? Although blatant gender discrimination is becoming more rare as the years go by, subtle and unwitting assumptions and actions by otherwise well-intentioned senior managers still hold women back. Some of these barriers include:

  • Myths surrounding women's work ethic or goals. For instance, 82 percent of working women want to become senior leaders, but less than a third of them think they have an opportunity equal to men.
  • False assumptions about women's capabilities or interests in taking on "non-traditional" jobs such as running a construction project or manufacturing plant.
  • Failure to assign key clients or challenging projects to high-potential women.
  • Risk avoidance in recruiting and promotion practices. Most companies pattern the successful candidates after who's at the top -- usually a man -- so those who are promoted tend to mirror those already there.
  • Reward systems that favor individual contributors (such as forced rankings) and subtle language reflecting "manager = male" biases.
  • Exclusion from powerful but informal networks.
  • Women's failure to ask or negotiate for higher pay, more challenging assignments and a seat at the table.
  • Management's assumptions about women's ability to balance her home and work lives.

Making matters worse, most organizations have been structured for men, by men so the values under which women flourish are often lacking. Even women who are beating the odds and making it to the top are often being asked to conform to work environments that may be uncomfortable to them -- much like being told to write with your left hand even if you are right-handed.

So here's the bottom line for women executives and those who aspire to reach the top: Some progress has been made -- but the bulk of the battle still lies ahead. Until we overcome these prevailing barriers, men will continue to rule the Corner Office.

Cross-posted from