Workplace Inequity Still Starts from Day One

04/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 1962, the faculty at Harvard Business School voted to accept women -- eight were admitted the next year. I was among 33 women out of a class of 800 in 1973. As graduation loomed that year, an on-campus recruiter talked to several of my male classmates about a well-paid management position at a leading company in Boston. He had offered them a role with wide latitude to shape operations and great opportunities to progress up the ladder. But when I talked to the recruiter, the job description was altered. The scope was narrow. The pay was less. Disappointed, I turned it down.

That was nearly 40 years ago, but as Catalyst's Pipeline's Broken Promises reveals, female MBA grads still start lower, are paid less and climb more slowly than equally qualified men. Despite decades of efforts to create opportunities for women's advancement, deep inequities exist.

The report surveyed more than 4,100 women and men MBA alumni -- the "best and the brightest" from 26 leading business schools around the globe. The results accounted for time elapsed since earning the MBA, industry, region, career aspirations, previous work experience, and parenthood status. These factors being equal, the survey found:

• Women started at lower levels than men following business school.
• Women averaged $4,600 less in their initial jobs.
• Women were outpaced by men in salary throughout their careers. In fact, the gap in pay intensified as time went on.
• Even if they both started at entry level, men progressed more quickly than women up the corporate ladder.
• Although women and men step off the corporate track at equal rates, women paid a greater penalty than men in career advancement when they returned.
• Overall -- and perhaps not surprisingly -- men were more satisfied with their careers than women, regardless of career path.

What should businesses do to fix these disturbing trends? Companies must acknowledge that inequities are destroying a robust pipeline, and then guard against stereotypes influencing judgment. Managers must make assignments based on skills and talent -- not presumptions.

Companies that fail to address biases within their own practices do so at their own risk. Catalyst research has discovered time and time again that better bottom line performance correlates with higher representation of women in senior leadership. Firms that disadvantage women from the start-- give them less pay and fewer opportunities to advance -- are sabotaging their talent pipeline and undermining the sustainability of their leadership.

Xerox Chairman, Anne M. Mulcahy, suggested to our researchers a simple test for companies to determine if systemic biases exist: "Take the resumes of the last 100 people hired, remove the names, do an assessment of where the hires should be positioned, and compare that with where they were placed." What do you think you would see at your company?

A woman's first job out of business school sets the pace for the rest of her career -- it should not seal her fate in the business world.