Why Women Don’t Advance to Senior Leadership: New Research

Two well-known scholars of gender inequality, Robin J. Ely of Harvard Business School and Irene Padavic of Florida State University, recently published new research in the Harvard Business Review with surprising findings about why women don’t advance. This research expands our understanding of why the advancement of women to senior leadership positions has been stagnant for the last twenty years.

Ely and Padavic explain that companies complain of high turnover of women and problems with promoting women to senior levels. They note that the problem is pervasive: “Women made remarkable progress accessing positions of power and authority in the 1970s and 1980s, but that progress slowed considerably in the 1990s and has stalled completely in this century.”

The authors note that a widely held belief called the work/family narrative is commonly used to explain the lack of advancement for women. According to this belief, “high-level jobs require extremely long hours, women’s devotion to family makes it impossible for them to put in those hours, and their careers suffer as a result.” The authors cite a 2012 survey of more than 6,500 Harvard Business School alumni in which 73 percent of men and 85 percent of women cited this scenario to explain women’s lack of advancement. This new research reveals startling findings showing that the work/family narrative is not the cause of the problem and that, in fact, it is used to help keep gender inequality in place.

Ely and Padavic conducted their new study with 107 partners and associates of a global consulting firm that had very few female partners. Nearly all of those interviewed, both women and men, blamed the work/family narrative for the lack of female partners in the firm. An analysis of the interview data revealed a different story:

  • Both women and men suffered from the work/family balance problem, but the men advanced when the women did not.
  • Women, but not men, were encouraged to take accommodations, like working part-time and taking internally facing roles, which derailed their careers.
  • Two-thirds of men who were fathers reported work/family conflict, but only one man took accommodations.
  • Employees who took accommodations—virtually all of whom were women—were stigmatized and saw their careers derailed.
  • The promotion record for childless women was no better than for mothers.
  • The foundational premise that women can’t advance because 24/7 work schedules are unavoidable was contradicted by observations that a culture of overwork was created by unnecessary overselling and overdelivering. In fact, research has shown that long hours do not raise productivity and are associated with decreases in performance and increases in sick leave.

The researchers conclude that it is the culture of overwork that is the problem, something I wrote about in an earlier article. The culture of overwork, combined with deeply embedded societal beliefs that women are best suited to family caregiving and men are best suited to be ideal workers committed to their jobs, sets up women who want to be committed workers and mothers as their primary identity for devaluation. If they want to be both mothers and committed workers, they are labeled as bad mothers or horrible women who are not positive role models for junior women.

The work/family narrative functions to divert attention from the real problem, which is the unnecessary and inhumane cultures of overwork. The work/family accommodations offered as a solution to the culture of overwork serve only to derail women’s careers and cover up the real problem of inefficient work practices and the assumption that long work hours are unavoidable.

It will take a concerted push by employees, both women and men, to force companies to see the advantage of reasonable hours. Because the problem is systemic, the very nature of work needs to change, which will happen only if people demand it. Younger men say they want more involvement in family life. Employers want to keep talent and may listen if young men start to quit. Employers may even decide that they cannot afford to lose out on women’s talents. We need to start a discussion on a national level about the nature of work and how to make it more humane for everyone. Only then will women have the chance to achieve workplace equality.


Photo by Craig Renv on Unsplash

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