The role of women in the workplace is often recognized as one of lackluster importance. This reality is especially apparent in the business realm. Since the early 1990s, the issue of gender equality in the workplace has gained increasing attention.
Is there gender specific discrimination in the business world? Is there a preferred style of business management that creates differences between females and their counterparts? Whether the cause is one or multiple, a singular or compounded reason, the question still remains: Where are the female executives?
The Numbers Speak for Themselves
In 2002, only six women were in CEO positions out of all Fortune 500 companies a disheartening 1.2 percent of all such positions, according to the Business and Professional Women Foundation (www.bpwusa.org). With a small number of role models to aspire to, it is not surprising that enrollment in business schools across the nation, though higher, is still below 50/50 proportions.
The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business, with both undergraduate and graduate "Top 20" ranked programs, boasts of 39 percent females in the undergraduate program and 31.5 percent female enrollment in the graduate program. While these numbers are above the 30 percent female enrollment average at top business schools around the nation (average found in a study by the University of Michigan in 2000), the prevalence of higher male to female student ratios, even at top ranked schools, is evident.
Overall, males hold about 85-90 percent of all top positions in the working world, according to Mats Alvesson, co-author of "Understanding Gender and Organizations." And though the number of women in low and mid-level business jobs has increased greatly in recent years, the number of women in executive positions still leaves much to be desired.
Breaking the Glass Ceiling
There are many theories as to why female executives are not more prevalent in the business world. In addition to the general theory of the slow changing stereotypes of women’s roles, the "Glass Ceiling" and "Alternate Values Position" theories remain exceedingly popular postulates.
The "Glass Ceiling" theory, the idea that females can only aspire to less than uppermost management levels before hitting an invisible "ceiling" of advancement, has attracted so much attention that a 1991 Congressional Act actually created a "Glass Ceiling Commission" to help develop solutions to barriers to female advancement and increase opportunities for women in the workplace.
The "Alternate Values Position" puts forth that the number of female executives is not the main issue of concern; rather "more female ways of managing is the issue to be tackled," according to Alvesson’s book. In fact, studies have shown that the personality and leadership styles of aspiring female executives often conflict with the stereotypical views of women.
Unfortunately, to date there is not sufficient quantitative information pointing to a clear "winning theory" – though many paramount factors leading to the lack of female equality in top management positions have been identified.
Will Women Rule the World?
While the notion of a female as president and in other traditionally held male roles are becoming more accepted, the idea of women equally representing top business positions anytime soon is unlikely. A 2002 Catalyst study of Fortune 500 companies found that women held 15.7 percent of all corporate executive positions (compared with 12.5 percent in 2000).
Though the number is slowly growing, it is estimated that females will hold still only 27.4 percent of all such positions by 2020. While steps in the right direction are being taken, more research and women workplace "champions" are still needed.
To all of the aspiring businesswomen out there, keep your heads up; many valiant women before you have already set the precedent and the workplace stereotypes are slowly, but surely, beginning to change. But beware – the ride to the top will likely be less than smooth. While opportunities are emerging frequently, they won’t be had easily.
If you are a determined female seeking to be the next CEO of a Fortune 500 company, be sure to take advantage of the increasing support and resources that are emerging. But don’t forget to pack your bags – it’s going to be a long haul.
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