Another Clue to the Scarcity of Women Executives

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circa 1975: Studio image of a young woman looking overwhelmed as she sits at a desk between two large stacks of paperwork. She wears a brightly patterned shirt. (Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Lambert/Getty Images)

Women now dominate the ranks of university graduates across most fields. They also, at least before they’re 30, often earn more than men their age. Yet they still rarely make it to the thickly carpeted executive suites of most companies. Only 13 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. So what gives? One new study may have sorted out one part of the mystery. Turns out women executives are twice as likely to leave jobs as men. (More on Will Better Education Get Women Into the Corner Office?)

Women suits are more likely to be asked to leave than men (2.9% versus 0.9 %), plus more likely to leave on their own accord (4.3% versus 2.8 %), says the study, which was conducted analyzing Standard & Poor’s information on 1,500 firms, and was published in October’s issue of Economic Inquiry. “The evidence suggests that women are being drawn out and forced out at higher rates. However, we don’t see too much evidence of a systematic pattern in the types of firms that are forcing or having women drawn out,” says lead author John Becker-Blease, an assistant professor of finance at Oregon State University. “So, in a sense, it seems the playing field is uniformly tilted against women across firms.”

Leaving a job for another can be an important career step, but taking time out to have and raise children can put women behind the guys in terms of experience. “Often times, the years that business professionals spend at the middle ranks and gaining the skills and attention necessary to succeed at the executive ranks are also prime, so-called, child-bearing years,” says Becker-Blease. Since procreation is kind of a given for the survival of the species, it’s hard to devise an end-run around motherhood.

The study found that women left bigger businesses less often than they left smaller companies. This may be because the smaller ones have no provision for maternity leave. Or it could be that big firms are more flexible, says Becker-Blease. “One distinct possibility is that larger firms devote more resources to childcare or alternative work arrangements that better enable women to juggle their multiple responsibilities.” It’s also possible that bigger firms can absorb the loss of one worker more easily than a small firm. (More on Photos: A Brief History of Women in Power)

“Gender asbestos” is the label Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, author of How Women Mean Business, has given the steady whittling away of female talent from the higher echelons of corporate management. “It’s a culture and and attitude so pervasive, it’s embedded into the very walls of boardrooms across America,” she says. She believes that corporations still have an image of leadership that’s predominantly alpha-male-looking. (The three female ex-Goldman Sachs employees who are suing the bank would seem to agree.)

But the Oregon University study found no pattern of discrimination. Becker-Blease believes it’s possible women feel more at liberty to leave a less than perfect job, because they are often not the sole breadwinner. “Additionally, it’s possible that the women in these situations may be the lesser bread-winner, so from a strictly financial perspective, if the husband needs to relocate, the woman might be drawn along.” Of course, that doesn’t exactly explain the firings.

Both Becker-Blease and Cox agree, though, that as more women reach the boardroom, it’s easier for others to see women as executive material and for other women to figure out a route into the c-suites, as the top jobs in the firm are called. And they both agree that change is going to be slow in coming. “If you look at the trends in women of executive ranks, although it has been trending up,” says Becker Blease, “the rate of growth isn’t particularly spectacular, so it could still be a generation or two at these rates.”

Unless of course, we find another way to reproduce. Sometimes, it seems that might be an easier knot to untie.

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