Catalyst released Women in Corporate Leadership: Progress and Prospects, a groundbreaking study defining the barriers and success factors for women in corporate America in 1996. Seven years later, the New York-based research and advisory organization conducted a follow-up study, Women in U.S. Corporate Leadership: 2003, to gauge whether or not change has occurred and provide insight about the experiences and opportunities for today’s women executives. Study findings show that there have been few dramatic changes in women’s attitudes and experiences since 1996. Those that have occurred bode well for the future, but much remains unchanged. While the report reveals some progress, it also highlights the work still yet to be done in creating inclusive and supportive work environments where women can succeed.
Sponsored by General Motors Corporation, Women in U.S. Corporate Leadership: 2003 examines the experiences and perceptions of the Fortune 1000’s most senior-level women and the CEOs with whom they work. The study findings reveal that, overall, executive women are satisfied with their positions, employers, compensation, and other aspects of their current jobs. In addition, the large majority of women (73 percent) are comfortable with any trade-offs they have made between their career and personal goals.
However, women still perceive significant challenges in their current work environments. Only one in four—23 percent—are satisfied with the availability of mentors in their organizations. Also, 43 percent are either dissatisfied with or feel neutral about the career advancement opportunities their jobs currently provide. Both women and CEOs agree that the No. 1 barrier to women’s advancement is a lack of significant general management or line management experience (responsibility for profit and loss). As Catalyst President Ilene H. Lang explains, “Women are not yet claiming the corner office because they are not getting experience in the business of the business. This is the key that will unlock the doors for women throughout corporate America.”
What’s Holding Women Back?
Women and CEOs agree that insufficient time in the pipeline is no longer a viable excuse for women’s lack of advancement. Only 20 percent of CEOs and 10 percent of women cite women’s lack of time in the management ranks as a barrier to their advancement. In 1996, the pipeline was the No. 2 barrier reported by 64 percent of the CEOs.
So what keeps women from getting ahead? Catalyst’s women respondents reported the following top five barriers to advancement:
Lack of significant general management or line experience (47%)
Exclusion from informal networks (41%)
Stereotyping and preconceptions of women’s roles and abilities (33%)
Failure of senior leadership to assume accountability for women’s advancement (29%)
Commitment to personal/family responsibilities (26%)
It is important to recognize that these top barriers to women’s advancement are interrelated. For example, stereotypes about women can often lead to their exclusion from relationship-building activities, such as mentoring and networking. This exclusion can, in turn, have an impact when key decisions about assignments—such as those that might involve gaining line experience—are made. The more women are excluded from line management roles, the more likely stereotypes will persist in these circles.
Reaching for the Top
The study also shows that women want to reach the top. Of those women who are not already in the most senior leadership positions, more than one-half (55 percent) aspire to be there, and another 19 percent have not ruled it out. CEO respondents recognize that women have the desire and ability to reach senior levels. Only 13 percent of CEOs cite a lack of skills or abilities as a barrier to women’s advancement to senior levels, as do only 2 percent of women. Similarly, only 11 percent of CEOs cite the lack of desire to reach senior levels as a barrier, as do only 8 percent of women.
Faced with the barriers described above, women executives employ a number of strategies to get ahead. Catalyst’s study participants cited the following top five success strategies:
Exceeding performance expectations (69%)
Successfully managing others (49%)
Developing a style with which male managers are comfortable (47%)
Having recognized expertise in a specific content area (46%)
Taking on difficult or highly visible assignments (40%)
Making Change for Women
Catalyst knows that strong leadership support is essential to successful efforts to advance women. In our study, women and CEOs agree that senior leaders need to assume accountability for women’s advancement. The failure of senior leaders to do so ranked second (37 percent) among the CEOs’ top barriers to women’s advancement, and almost one-third (29 percent) of the women executives cited lack of senior-level accountability as a barrier. Catalyst’s recommendations for leaders include:
Act as a role model; demonstrate your commitment to inclusion by your actions.
Give women high-visibility, high-impact career opportunities, and support them in those assignments.
Clearly communicate the business case for employee development and advancement programs.
In closing, Catalyst’s findings about women in corporate leadership serve as a call to action for companies and their leadership. Women in U.S. Corporate Leadership: 2003 reveals that the pipeline is no longer an excuse for why women are not advancing. Women are in the ranks, and many of them aspire to reach the top. But there are still a number of barriers holding women back. Business leaders who are committed to challenging these barriers and recruiting, retaining, and advancing women will have a competitive edge in today’s marketplace.
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Catalyst is the leading research and advisory organization working to advance women in business, with offices in New York, San Jose, and Toronto. As an independent, nonprofit membership organization, Catalyst uses a solutions-oriented approach that has earned the confidence of business leaders around the world. Catalyst conducts research on all aspects of women's career advancement and provides strategic and web-based consulting services on a global basis to help companies and firms advance women and build inclusive work environments. In addition, Catalyst honors exemplary business initiatives that promote women's leadership with its annual Catalyst Award.
Also see 2007 Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners of the Fortune 500.