Will Better Education Get Women Into the Corner Office?

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Last academic year, for the first time, women got more doctoral degrees than men. Women now get more degrees of any caliber: bachelor’s (ironic, no?), master’s (again!) and now doctorates. Plus, humans with no Y chromosome now get almost half of all MBAs. Women are taking over! Ah, except in the C-suites. You know, those thickly carpeted offices where all the  decisions are made?

According to another new set of figures, the  annual “Womenomics” survey produced by 20-First, a consultancy firm that specializes in gender,  87% of the U.S’s top 101 companies have one or more women on their executive committees. But — and this is a big but — only 15% of the people who answer directly to the CEO are women. Moreover, most of those women (139 out of 193) are not directly in frontline profit-and-loss roles, but in support positions: human resources, communications or legal. “It’s hardly a basis for continued improvement of gender balance in the future, where P&L experience is a prerequisite for leadership,” says Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-First. (More on Top 10 Female Leaders)

These figures are particularly interesting in light of the revelations about graduation rates. Since women have been getting two thirds of all bachelor’s degrees for some time now, as well as 60% of all master’s degrees, it would seem to follow that they’d soon begin to dominate the ranks of upper corporate management of Americas big companies as well.

But they’re not. And even though they’re more likely to have a superior education, Wittenberg-Cox thinks there needs to be a greater cultural shift before women are given the keys to the executive bathroom in any great numbers. “Reports have extrapolated out that at the current rate of change, getting equal genders into the C-suites will take about another 50 to 100 years,” she says. The problem, she thinks, is what is recognized as business leadership: “It’s all about hungry, ambitious, competitive, alpha behavior. Nobody has proved that these characteristics make effective leaders.”

Recent studies from Catalyst, McKinsey and a bunch of universities have in fact suggested otherwise. Companies with more women high up the leadership ladder tend to perform better over a longer period on most metrics. And a small study last week found that high testosterone in CEOs sometimes unsteadied the ship of commerce. Despite such sage advice, Apple, Exxon, Intel and Citigroup are among the companies that have no women in positions that report directly to the CEO. (More on 10 Start-Ups That Will Change Your Life)

If it’s any consolation to highly educated, possibly underemployed, American women, the U.S. is doing better on this front than elsewhere. Although many of them have women on their boards, only 44% of European companies have women in their highest executive ranks, and a mere 23% of Asian companies do, according to 20-First’s survey.

So, you know, eat, pray, love all you want overseas, but for now, the work is probably better here.

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