04/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pipeline in Peril: Women MBAs Lag Behind

It was always just a matter of time. As more women graduated with advanced degrees, entered the workforce and gained relevant experience, we would see an abundance of talented women rise to the top of big corporations. But the so-called pipeline has sprung a leak and/or has an anti-female filter attached to it. A recent survey by Catalyst, a non-profit organization that works to promote women and diversity in business, found that women with MBA degrees lag behind their male counterparts in both advancement and compensation, and they don't ever catch up. Not surprisingly, these women were also less satisfied with their careers.

The report pins the blame on implicit bias in the recruiting, selection, job assignment and promotion processes. Women start their post-MBA careers at overwhelmingly lower levels in the organization than men, and they do not move up the ranks as quickly. Women in the survey earned, on average, $4,600 less than men. These results are true even when adjusted for years of work experience, ambition, parenthood, industry and region. The bottom line is that when high-achieving and highly educated women and men are compared, women are still getting the short end of the stick.

Why? One reason is certainly bias, which I've discussed in previous columns. Bosses all too often assume things that they shouldn't. Studies show that people assume that if a woman has a conflict with work, it's due to childcare responsibilities. But men with work conflicts don't face that same assumption. Bosses often assume that a woman does not want a promotion because it would mean relocating, or the job entails frequent travel or simply because she did not ask for it.

What Women Want

Not asking is a problem we women have. A study done at Hewlett-Packard found that women would not apply for promotion opportunities unless they felt they had 100 percent of the qualifications, whereas men applied as long as they met 60 percent of the requirements. In their book Women Don't Ask, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever found that the starting salaries of men graduating from the Carnegie Mellon University master's program were $4,000 higher than the women. The reason was that eight times more men than women (57 percent of men versus 7 percent of women) negotiated their starting salaries. Another study found that men initiate negotiations four times more often than women do. If you look at those differences compounded over an average 38-year career (assuming no one takes time out for family or other pursuits), men end up with over a half-million dollars more than women!

Why do women sell themselves short? Part of the issue is that they are brought up to "get along" and not rock the boat. They fear harming their relationships with others. Another problem is that society tends to look down on women who are assertive and state their needs and goals. Several studies show that women face a double bind in the workplace: they can either be likable or competent, but not both. A third part of the issue is that women's achievements tend to be undervalued, a concept that often rubs off on the women themselves. And a final part of the equation is that women often prefer to work more collaboratively and rather than asking directly for something they want, they will seek to find a solution that benefits both parties. By and large, that is usually not a problem, but when a woman is negotiating something for herself (as opposed to someone else, like her workgroup) she is seen as less effective and her request is more often denied.

Another aspect of this is the different ways that men and women approach negotiation. Men see negotiation as a form of competition, something that they are bred to do from the start. However, women see negotiation as an obstacle to getting along with others. But ironically, when women do negotiate they tend to focus on the needs of both parties and how any proposed solution will affect a wider range of people. Women use more "integrative tactics" like asking questions, listening, openly sharing their motivations and actively working to find a solution that benefits both sides. When women's cooperative methods of negotiation are reciprocated, their ways of negotiating actually tends to yield better results.

Unfortunately, when a newly minted female MBA is faced with a job offer, too many social and societal mores get in her way, and she's seen as pushy, bitchy or overly aggressive. Not a great way to start your first job. So until bosses start to assume more positive things about women - and women step up to the plate and ask for what they want - that pipeline won't become robust anytime soon.