Once A Company Has One Woman Exec, It's Harder For Another To Get A Top Job

Promoting one woman to a company’s executive team doesn’t necessarily crack the glass ceiling.

A woman’s chances of nabbing one of a firm’s five highest-paid positions drop 51 percent if the team already includes another woman, according to new research from Columbia Business School and the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. But understanding this could be the first step to setting companies on track toward true gender equality.

Among S&P 1,500 companies, the percentage of women in top management positions has risen slowly to 8.7 percent in 2011 from 1.6 percent in 1992, according to the study. (By contrast, women make up 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce and 38 percent of managerial positions, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) When the researchers began examining the regulatory filings from the firms on that index, they thought they'd see a pattern of firms with multiple female executives on the same team.

Instead, they noticed that only a few firms had more than one woman at the top of the corporate ladder.

“It’s like someone really carefully went around and put one woman on one top management team, and another woman on another, and another woman on another,” David Gaddis Ross, co-author of the study and an associate professor at Columbia, told The Huffington Post. “Just by luck of the draw, you’d see three women on top management teams because of a confluence of factors, but it turns out that happens a lot less often than it should.”

There is no clear explanation for this, though two obvious theories arise, one of them optimistic and one pessimistic, according to Ross:

  • Optimistic view: Motivated to promote gender equality, a company selects one woman to be a top executive. Once her position is established, the firm shifts focus to other things, as is human nature.
  • Pessimistic view: Facing pressure from shareholders or advocacy groups, a company promotes a woman to a leadership position to appease critics, then stops there because it doesn't want more female execs.
  • Either way, the firm is doing damage to itself.

    Companies with a higher percentage of women in leadership roles reported increased financial performance and effective management of staff, according to a 2011 survey from human resources company DDIWorld. A 2012 study by the consultancy Zenger Folkman found that female executives were, on average, better at working with a team, championing change and taking initiative than their male counterparts. To boot, women have repeatedly proven to be better investors than men.

    According to Ross, businesses can move toward breaking a sexist hiring cycle by recognizing that promoting one woman doesn’t mean progress anymore.

    “If you’re a CEO, be well aware that the ceremonial token representation of progress could be very well where your organization gets stuck,” Ross said. “You may well need a second woman to reach a tipping point.”