05/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Pink Slip: Women and Layoffs in the Recession

I noticed an interesting column in the Chicago Tribune a few days ago written by the fine journalist Greg Burns. He observed a persistent job gap that for once seemed to work in women's favor. He noted that the unemployment rate among men was about 8.8 percent compared with 7.32 percent for women. Experts told Burns that the 1.5 percent difference was likely to get even wider as the recession continues.

It turns out, however, that even though women are more than holding their own in terms of staying employed, their gains are not reflected in leadership positions. And that is where another very interesting story about women in the workplace can be found.

One of the people Burns interviewed for the column was a colleague of mine at the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Business Administration, Assistant Professor of Management Jenny Hoobler who has taken a close look at promotions for women in the workplace and the glass ceiling holding them back.

In a recent research project, Professor Hoobler, along with fellow UIC colleagues Professor Sandy Wayne and graduate student Grace Lemmon, found a very interesting pattern of behavior by managers that appears to explain why women are so routinely passed over for promotions.

They found that bosses -- both male and female -- simply assume that women have more family-work conflicts (defined as family spilling over to affect work performance) than men. Surprisingly, these assumptions hold true even when there is clear evidence that men actually report more such conflict than women -- as was the case in their sample of Fortune 100 workers. So guess who gets the promotion? As Professor Hoobler said recently: "It's not so much your own perceptions that your family life conflicts with your work life that affects your career progress, it's your boss's perceptions."

Hoobler and her colleagues did their study at one Fortune 100 corporation using 162 subjects. Even after controlling for women's actual conflicts between work and home, they found that managers still fell back on the old "think leader, think male" stereotype. In other words, it seems to be bias, not real conflict between family and work, that is holding women back from leadership positions.

So here is where things seem to stand. Currently women comprise about half of professional school graduates in fields such as business and law, and they find entry level jobs in equal numbers. Men move ahead, and women remain largely stuck in middle management.

Burns and Professor Hoobler got together again earlier this week when Chicago's Ilene Gordon was named president and CEO of Corn Products International, Inc. Hoobler said she'd like to see Gordon's presidency as a trend, but that her research shows otherwise. The middle management pipeline may be filled with qualified women, but the glass ceiling remains tough to crack.