Women make up a tiny minority of CEOs. The reasons for this extreme gender imbalance are complex, but a new survey by the Rockefeller Foundation suggests that it can partly be blamed on bias from the guys up top. The study found that men’s attitudes about women in the workplace hold women back from executive positions. The study is an important reminder that achieving gender equality in the workforce can’t only depend on women adjusting their behavior — everyone needs to change.
As the Huffington Post points out, in discussions of women in the workforce — and their underrepresentation in the upper echelons of major companies —there tends to be a lot of emphasis on what women should do to get ahead: They need to be more aggressive, they need to be more forceful in salary negotiations, they need to be more confident, they need to find the flexibility to juggle work and care-taking duties, and so on.
But a May 2017 poll of more than a thousand adults by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Global Strategy Group reveals that women in the workforce come up against barriers that they cannot control: Biased attitudes from male executives. The survey found that 65 percent of respondents believed that the “attitudes of men in top leadership positions are a barrier to female leadership,” the Huffington Post reported. Ninety percent of women surveyed said that male attitudes are a barrier to women at work, and 49 percent of male respondents agreed. Interestingly, the Huffington Post reported that almost everyone who responded to the survey said that men and women are equally capable of holding leadership positions.
A July New York Times article about female executives echoed the study’s findings. “For years I thought it was a pipeline question,” Julie Daum, who has worked for Spencer Stuart to add women to corporate boards, said. “But it’s not — I’ve been watching the pipeline for 25 years. There is real bias, and without the ability to shine alight on it and really measure it, I don’t think anything’s going to change. Ultimately at the top of an organization there are fewer and fewer spots, and if you can eliminate an entire class of people, it makes it easier.”
Right now, 32 CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female — that’s only 6 percent. The Rockefeller Foundation currently has an initiative, the 100 x 2025 campaign, to move that number up to 100 female CEOs by 2025. This survey’s findings show that, if opportunities for female CEOs are ever to improve, companies need to address in a substantial way the biases that exist among men in the upper ranks.