Women who get promoted to high-ranking executive positions at Fortune 100 companies tend to get there quicker than men, yet they still have a harder time breaking into the upper echelon of management, a recent study by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found.
Just a decade ago, U.S. companies were poised to make some serious progress toward improving gender diversity at the executive level, the report found.
Then the pandemic hit.
“Employers started showing considerable interest in both measuring and improving gender diversity,” the research found. “They dug into the analytics and kicked off initiatives with hopes of turning the numbers around – only to shelve a lot of those efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many companies struggled to stay afloat.”
To gauge progress toward gender diversity in leadership, the authors of the Wharton research analyzed 4,000 Fortune 100 executives’ career histories and demographics from the past 40 years, focusing on the 10 highest-ranking roles in each company.
They found that despite gains made in gender diversity overall, most of the women have been relegated to support functions.
Gender representation has certainly improved, mainly because there was nowhere to go but up: Not one woman held any of the top 1,000 jobs in 1980. Since then, women have actually advanced more quickly than their male counterparts into executive positions – with 27 percent of the Fortune 100’s top leadership positions in 2021 being held by women. But the distribution of roles among those women is uneven, their research found.
Among all the leadership positions held by women in 2021, just 6 percent were at the highest tier (CEOs, presidents and COOs). Most were support roles, overseeing enterprise functions such as HR, finance and legal: 60 percent of the leadership roles held by women fell into this category.
“Given the results, employers must provide more equitable access to growth opportunities that prepare executives for key roles in general management and operations, opening doors for advancement to the very highest level,” the report states.
As of May 2022, just 44 – or 8.8 percent – of the Fortune 500 CEOs were women.
It’s not a lack of qualifications or aspirations, it’s about lack of access and opportunity, say experts from the Women Business Collaborative, an alliance of national women’s organizations and executives who advocate for equity in the workplace.
“The economic, workplace and societal contributions of women have gone unnoticed and under-rewarded for far too long. The research and data show that when women lead, they not only uplift themselves but their communities,” said Anna Mok, president and chair of Ascend and Ascend Foundation. “It’s now time to act on what we know and for companies to hold themselves accountable for women elevating women into leadership positions.”