Companies May Like Hiring One Female Executive -- But Not Two

Corporate America, don’t pat yourself on the back for gender diversity just yet.

Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you

The Background

While women represent 47 percent of the American workforce, they make up only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board members and a mere 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. The media may tout the Sheryl Sandbergs, Marissa Mayers and Andrea Jungs of the world as examples of progress, but in reality, these women represent a staggering minority, especially considering that women earn 60 percent of both undergraduate and graduate degrees. What gives?

In a new study, researchers decided to look into why women like Sandberg, Mayer and Jung tend to be the exception rather than the norm at companies.  

The Setup

Using Standard & Poor's ExecuComp, as well as data from data on firms from BoardEx and the Institutional Shareholder Services, researchers analyzed the gender breakdown of executives at 1,500 public companies in the U.S. from 1992 to 2011. For each firm, they looked at female representation in the top management team and other positions throughout the company. 

The Findings

The researchers found that the probability that a woman would be given a position in top management was lower if a woman held another position on the same team. According to the study, women face an "implicit quota": When companies hire one female executive, they promptly pat themselves on the back and give up on achieving actual gender equality.  

"One might expect if you have a company that has a woman CFO or CEO, that probably means that the firm is friendlier to women and it's more likely to hire women," David G. Ross, co-author of the study and an associate professor at The University of Florida, told The Huffington Post. "But it almost seems like the opposite -- firms are one and done."

Ross said that this pattern could exist because companies make an effort to achieve some level of female representation on their top management teams, but once they get one woman, they turn their attention to other things. He also suggested a more "malignant interpretation" of his findings, in which companies actively resist having more women. (Though he said his study doesn't prove either of these explanations.)

The Takeaway

These findings don't mean that women should avoid working for companies that already have a female executive or feel hopeless if they already do. On the contrary, studies like this one help identify the problem so that real changes can be made. Ross said that getting more women on top management teams isn't something that will self-correct -- companies need to make an active, sustained effort to ensure that men and women have equal opportunities to rise to the top.

"Whatever actions companies are taking to get that initial female hire on their top management team, they need to, at the very least, not relent and perhaps redouble those efforts to get the second and third," Ross said. 

As for the women currently hitting the glass ceiling, when you feel overlooked for a promotion or are told not to "dick-measure over salary," let these findings assure you that you're not crazy. Fighting to push through that glass is a b*tch sometimes, but it's certainly a battle worth fighting. 

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