No Brass Ring for Women

Despite the implementation of laws that aim to prevent discrimination in the workplace, the overwhelming majority of corporate America’s executives are male. Women make up just 17% of the executive suite.

In America, there exists a culture of discomfort when it comes to female business leaders. According to Sheryl Sandberg, the founder of, an organization dedicated to helping women achieve their professional goals, “women walk a tightrope between being liked and being respected where men do not.”

Similarly, many believe that women lack both the confidence to be successful in executive roles and the ambition to get there. Yet others attribute the absence of women in top positions to the idea that women put their career plans on hold in order to spend more time caring for their families.

In conjunction with McKinsey & Co., Lean In recently conducted a study of 118 companies and more than 30,000 employees to capture data on the attitudes of working women. One goal of their study was to pinpoint the factors that keep many women from reaching the top of the corporate ladder and grabbing the metaphorical brass ring.

The results of this study contradict many preexisting ideas about women in the workplace. Women are not abandoning their careers in high numbers in order to spend more time with their families. Instead, motherhood actually increases a women’s desire to be promoted. Having a family is expensive, so mothers have an incentive to work in higher paid positions.

The data collected also indicates that a roughly equal percentage of men and women want to be promoted, with 78% and 75% desiring promotions respectively. However, this data also signal that, though they would like a promotion, many women would rather not take an executive position within their given company. Only 43% of women want to enter into top roles compared to 53% of men.

Many women cited stress as their main reason for not pursuing top positions. They are likely worried about balancing work life and family life. Even women without children and families indicated that stress is a major factor in their decision not to enter the executive suite. This suggests that the high-pressure aura of executive positions may be a turn off for women. As a result, senior women often end up working in staff roles, such as Human Resources, instead of upper management positions like their male counterparts.

The Lean In study also found that women encounter more challenges on their way to the executive suite than men. Roughly 25% of women feel that their gender has inhibited their professional progress. Women are also 15% less likely to be promoted than men.

As proven time and time again, increasing diversity in the workplace can lead a company to become more successful. While three-quarters of the companies that Lean In studied named gender diversity a top priority, fewer than half of the employees interviewed said it was high on their own CEO’s priority list.

Dr. Correll, the director of Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, argues that managers need “to see that some of their actions are creating barriers to women in ways they don’t intend.” The Chief Executive of Tegna said a lot of companies would rather “pay lip service to gender diversity than to hold bosses responsible.” There needs to be a conscious, top-down shift that eliminates a work culture that disadvantages women.

Many large-scale banks, such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America have implemented programs aimed at informing women about the responsibilities of top executives in an attempt to quell notions that those positions are particularly stressful. Companies like Johnson and Johnson have begun working to change company culture by implementing quotas pertaining to the gender ratio of their executives.

While these companies have done much to improve the participation of women in their executive suites, gender equality in the American workforce is a long way off.