Discuss as:

Women doing all the right things, still lag men in business

Martin Barraud / Getty Images/OJO Images

By Eve Tahmincioglu

Women, it seems, still can’t get a leadership break.

For years now, the number of women in positions of power in corporate America has been stagnant, with gals unable to break 20 percent of the executive officer positions or corporate board seats.

If you read the career advice out there you’d think it’s all the fault of women themselves and not the entrenched gender bias in the workplace.

The thinking is that women don’t want it enough. They’re not doing the right things to get to the top. They’re slowing down their career to raise families.

Turns out, this may be nothing more than corporate mythology.

A study by research firm Catalyst has found that women with MBAs who are considered high potential are using all the right career strategies to get ahead, but the pay and promotion gap still exists. Conventional wisdom that says women are failing to negotiate  for themselves, opting out, or putting the skids on careers for family are all bunk, according to the findings.

“It’s really time for organizations to stop assuming that these myths are true and look at what’s going on in terms of their talent management systems,” said Christine Silva, senior director of research for Catalyst.

The report -- which studied more than 3,000 male and female MBAs who stayed on a “traditional” career path and were working full time -- broke down the participants into four strategy profiles:

  • “Climbers,” who are actively seeking to advance in a company.
  • “Hedgers,” who are looking for advancement inside and outside their existing employers.
  • “Scanners,” who are looking for future prospects in the job market.
  • “Coasters,” who are not actively using career-enhancing tactics.

It found that male hedgers got the biggest advancement rewards for their efforts -- twice as much as female hedgers.

Compared to other men, male hedgers had advanced furthest, getting more of a payoff for employing both internally and externally focused advancement strategies, followed by male climbers, coasters and scanners.

For women it was a different story.

Not only did they lag male hedgers in advancement, there was no difference among female hedgers, climbers or scanners. While women in the hedgers group did advance further than coasters -- women doing comparatively less to get ahead -- being proactive didn’t provide as great an advantage for women hedgers as it did for male hedgers.

Here’s an overview of the four realities women face when it comes to advancement, according to the study:

1. Doing All the Right Things Does Not Level the Playing Field for Women
Among much of career advancement advice out there, the employee who is seen as having the most potential to advance into the leadership ranks typically has certain characteristics, according to Catalyst researchers, including everything from actively seeking high-profile assignments to learning the political landscape or unwritten rules of an company.

Unfortunately, such traits don’t help women as much as men.

The study found that:

“Men benefited more than women when they adopted the proactive strategies of the proverbial ideal worker. Even when women used the same career advancement strategies -- doing all the things they have been told will help them get ahead -- they advanced less than their male counterparts and had slower pay growth.”

While career strategies didn’t benefit women as much as men, the tactics that were among the most effective career strategies for women overall, said Silva, were:

  • Making their achievements known.
  • Getting access to powerful and influential others.

2. Women Are Not Seeking Slower Tracks

The researchers looked at women and men who aspired to get to the top of organizations and found there was no evidence women were seeking slower tracks than men. They found overall that women were less satisfied with their career trajectory and compensation, and that these women were not intentionally slowing down their careers but wanting more.

The study found:

  • Even among the most and least proactive, men were more satisfied with their advancement than were women.
  • Women were also less satisfied than men with their salary and rate of compensation growth. This holds when comparing women and male hedgers, scanners, and coasters.

The findings suggest, the authors surmised, that “women likely were not seeking out lower-paying career tracks and, therefore, accepting of and satisfied with their lower compensation. Rather, they likely were less satisfied with their salary and compensation growth when they compared themselves to others in their field and at their level.”

3. Men Are Paid for Potential While Women are Paid for (Proven) Performance

It’s often thought that leaving one employer for another will help accelerate pay, but this doesn’t seem to hold true for women, according to the data.

Men who left their employer say their compensation grew more than men who stayed with the company they first joined after getting their MBAs.

On average, men who were at their second post-MBA employer earned $13,743 more by 2008 than those who stayed with their first-post MBA employer.

But for women there was no difference in compensation growth between women who left their jobs and those who stayed. Among women job-hoppers, compensation growth was $53,472 less than for women who were still with their first employer. Silva said this is evidence that men are generally paid for their potential, but women have to prove they can do the job.

4. Women Do Ask, But Asking Doesn’t Close the Gap

There was little difference in the negotiating habits of men and women in the study, with 47 percent of women and 52 percent of men reporting they had asked for more money during the hiring process.

The overarching message of the research, said Silva, is “organizations have a responsibility to figure out where unintentional biases exist.”

While everyone is focused on the glass ceiling phenomenon, she continued, few realize how disparities in pay and rank among men and women when they’re in lower level positions ends up dooming many women later in their careers because they may never catch up.

Another issue is women themselves. Many may not realize they face discrimination and as a result may not be fighting for equal opportunities, according to another recently released study by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University titled “Opting Out or Denying Discrimination? How the Framework of Free Choice in American Society Influences Perceptions of Gender Inequality.”

Nicole Stephens, assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg who co-authored the report, said women have the choice today to either stay in the workforce or opt out for personal reasons, and that choice may be lulling them into a false sense of career equity.

“But were their choices really desirable?” she asked.

That in turn perpetuates a male model in the workplace, she maintained, and the assumption that one person, the man, is going to be the breadwinner and the woman typically has one foot heading out the door. That mentality, she stressed, is what often leads to the pay and advancement inequality.

“By calling something a choice,” she added. “It makes people think there really isn’t a problem here that needs to be fixed.”