A recent Bain & Company study on how and why women’s career paths differ from men’s produced some shocking and insightful data about the role of gender in the workplace. I was struck by one point in particular: Women start out more ambitious than men in striving to reach top management in their companies, but they lose those aspirations when they feel unsupported by their supervisors. This occurs even in companies that want more women in leadership positions. The same loss of C-suite ambition does not apply to men, the survey found.
We have to ask ourselves: What happens to the aspirations and motivation of half our talent pool when its members look at the road ahead and can’t see a future that reaches past middle management?
Women start out more ambitious than men in striving to reach top management in their companies, but they lose those aspirations when they feel unsupported by their supervisors.
When I graduated from law school in 1977, my class was only 22 percent women. I was optimistic, however, that change would come, and I was excited to set the world on fire — the women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s fueled my passion. I thought nothing could stand in my way.
I’m glad that I didn’t have a crystal ball to deter me. I’ve had an exceptionally rewarding career as an attorney, public policy expert, business leader and, now, Bentley University’s first woman president. But I have also had a front row seat for almost four decades, watching the percentage of women in the U.S. workforce decline over time; seeing our numbers drop precipitously in the levels above middle management; and observing corporate suite and boardroom statistics inch their way up at a snail’s pace.
The U.S. once had one of the top employment rates in the world for women, peaking at 74 percent in 1999. Since then, the number of women who are employed in this country has fallen to 69 percent. We now lag behind Switzerland, Australia, Germany, France, Japan and Canada. While the recession and a weak economy certainly took their toll, it’s clear that a lack of corporate support for the demands of family life is a main contributor to this decline.
The business case for addressing these types of discrepancies has gained traction in recent years, and that’s good news. Plenty of research shows that women in boardrooms and senior positions bring important leadership traits and diverse perspectives. That translates into better overall company performance. I have talked with many male CEOs who get it, and most feel as frustrated as I do when it comes to gender roles in corporate America today.
...the number of women who are employed in this country has fallen to 69 percent. We now lag behind Switzerland, Australia, Germany, France, Japan and Canada.
In Massachusetts, a group of businesses have signed on to the Corporate Challenge, announced last October by Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business and then-Governor Deval Patrick. To date, more than 100 companies, including PwC, Raytheon, State Street, EMC, Suffolk Construction and The Boston Globe, have signed on as participants. The shared goal: increasing the percentage of women in their workforces, raising the number of women on their boards of directors, retaining female employees or monitoring pay by gender to identify and eliminate inequalities.
The importance of this commitment to gender inclusiveness at work by Massachusetts companies can’t be overstated. To bring about real change, we all need to be involved. Men, women and corporations — including business leaders from the board to the C-suite to the junior supervisor — need to acknowledge that workplace gender inclusion isn’t going to happen unless we take action and hold ourselves accountable. That action and accountability need to start now.