Women on top: Why so few?

This post is the second in a blog forum about inequality and organizational theory (see part 1). Isabel Fernandez-Mateo of London Business School wrote the post, and Philip Cohen of the University of Maryland and the Family Inequality blog provided commentary.

Isabel Fernandez-Mateo

Thank you Brayden, Bruce and Jerry for inviting me to participate in this conversation on inequality – a topic which I care deeply about. I would like to post a few thoughts about a type of inequality that I think a lot of other people are also concerned with: the scarcity of women in top jobs. The problem is clear, and the list of potential solutions is long – quotas, changes in firms’ performance evaluation systems, family friendly policies, etc. One could thus easily assume that by now we have a very good understanding of why the problem exists in the first place (i.e. how and why we lose women as we go up the hierarchy). I believe, however, that we are not even close. For starters, we may be looking in the wrong places.

For decades, our knowledge of careers and inequality has been closely linked to the study of internal labor markets: how firms allocate people to jobs. As a result, our explanations for why so few women get placed in top positions have mostly focused on the role of organizational practices, which create barriers for women in internal promotion. Roberto Fernandez makes this point in a couple of recent papers, where he reminds us that the metaphor of the “glass ceiling” is alive and well.

And yet we have some pretty good evidence that the traditional career model, in which the best route up is to be promoted within a single firm, is losing its dominance. A number of authors have argued that relationships between firms and employees have become much more arm’s-length. This means that career advancement is now more influenced by external rather than internal labor markets. If so, getting hired into the right jobs in the right companies is becoming more important than climbing the ladder inside the firm (see Matthew Bidwell’s paper for an interesting twist on this). This has major consequences for how we think about inequality. Still, much of our research on women’s lack of access to the top remains embedded in the imagery of the internal labor market, where promotions – rather than external hiring processes – are the main focus. I of course do not mean to discard the importance of the former, but I think that it is time we pay much more attention to the latter.

Over the past few years I have been investigating the mechanisms that may sustain gender inequality outside the firm, particularly in the context of contract employment. I have found evidence that the way women move across jobs in different firms matters for how well they do over time. Since every move involves a hiring process, in a recent paper I investigated how hiring processes contribute to sort women into lower paid jobs in the IT sector. Here the role of screeners external to the firm (i.e. staffing firms) was crucial. It was their actions – not those of female applicants or employers – that contributed most to keeping women out of higher paid temporary jobs. Could this kind of mechanism also explain why so few women get hired into top management positions?

My next goal is precisely to examine whether it is the gatekeepers who place men and women in top jobs differently. It doesn’t take much to realize that executive search firms are the place to look. Nowadays hardly anyone gets hired in a top position without the involvement of these organizations; yet they remain a black box for researchers. When observing how few women get placed at the top, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that search firms must be contributing to make it so (old boys’ clubs, stereotyping, you name it). This may well be true, but we simply do not know. We are only seeing the outcome of their actions (who they place) but not the process (how they choose from the candidate pool). The only way to truly understand why women do not get into these jobs is to track them from the very beginning of the hiring pipeline, starting with the long list of candidates that are initially considered, and following them each step of the way (including whose decisions – search firm, candidates or clients – are more important at each step). This is precisely what Roberto Fernandez and I are doing in a new project, where we have got hold of full pipeline data from a big UK executive search firm. By following our favourite route of dissecting social mechanisms, we hope to provide some clear (and possibly unexpected) answers to the question of why there are still so few women at the top. Keep posted!

Commentary by Philip Cohen

David Brooks recently, breezily (of course) attributed the “tippy-top” glass ceiling to the supply side: “Men still dominate the tippy-top of the corporate ladder because many women take time off to raise children.” If you were going to choose a single variable to over-emphasize, motherhood is not a bad choice, but of course that’s not a simple matter of women’s choice.

The motherhood focus is consistent with the results from applicant-pool analysis that show women absent from hiring pipelines. And I appreciate the focus by Isabel and her colleagues on hiring processes, with creative empirical analysis of applicant pools. All of us who study earnings and occupations among people who already have jobs need to be aware of this work.

Focusing on the supply side, of course, raises the ire of anti-victim-blamers. That’s unfortunate, because if you back up from the analysis – look wider than the single-firm studies – the supply side reflects the cumulative effects of many individual and collective actors. Families, the education system, and upstream labor-market actors are the most prominent. The supply-side analysis only rankles if you constrict your view with a methodological-individualist lens and see the supply-side as synonymous with individual choice. (You can tell I just taught Durable Inequality.)

To the extent that careers are increasingly spread across multiple firms, this point is of growing salience not just because of the larger role for external versus internal hiring processes, but because every job change is a point of leverage for all these other actors as well. Previous employers’ practices provoke job changes in the first place (after all, there is discrimination in firing, too), as do the career moves of spouses. How to handle such changes is not simply an individual victim’s personal choice for which to be blamed.

We especially need to consider the role of state policy in shaping family-career interactions over the life course. When adequate family leave is not available, when health care is too expensive, when high-quality preschool education is inaccessible or too expensive, when the state-sanctioned workday is too damn long – all that increases the pressure that women’s family obligations place on their career trajectories.

Rather than seeing such influences as competing for importance with hiring and promotion processes, and arguing over where researchers’ attentions should focus, we need to consider how state, family and market dynamics interact with hiring and promotion. Workers make job-search choices under understands and assumptions about firm preferences and practices, and employers (or headhunters) see – or assume – the effects of wide contextual forces on the workers they might hire. I look forward to seeing more of this research.


Written by orgtheoryguest

October 15, 2012 at 3:50 am

Posted in demography, inequality

7 Responses

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  1. Thanks Isabel for the post. Understanding exactly how the gatekeepers are shaping outcomes seems crucial and, yet, underexplored. This is quite different (and a refreshing change) from looking at the supply side problems per se.


    Sarah Kaplan

    October 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm

  2. […] at Orgtheory, Isabel Fernandez-Mateo has a comment on why there are so few women at the top of the work hierarchy – and her research to look into it further. They invited me […]


  3. Thanks Philip for a thoughtful commentary. I am glad you agree that there is no assumption about “blaming the victim” in supply-side accounts of gender inequality in hiring. I am with you that, even if an applicant pool analysis shows that candidates’ actions matter, we cannot conclude that these are the result of unconstrained choice. Many factors beyond the hiring process shape women’s actions. These are definitely not competing stories – rather different pieces of the puzzle.

    I’d also like to emphasize, however, that applicant pools analyses do not necessarily imply supply-side explanations (e.g. my 2011 paper on hiring in staffing firms identifies a demand-driven mechanism for why women are allocated to lower paid jobs).



    October 15, 2012 at 6:28 pm

  4. And even if they reach the top, they still might not get the credit:


    Wonks Anonymous

    October 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm

  5. […] blog post is the third in a blog forum about inequality and organizational theory (see parts 1 and 2).  Adam Cobb of Penn’s Wharton School of Management wrote the post and Leslie McCall of […]


  6. My conclusion about the lack of women in “tippy top” positions: the role of wife. I think people need to get away from the discussions about family-friendly policies in the workplace. Flexible working time policies are beside the point when you are talking about jobs that generally require 24-7 commitment. Not necessarily time in the office, but certainly time cultivating relationships that are the currency of the tippy top. And childcare is also kind of beside the point, because a mother will always be a mother, no matter what. And certain childcare duties CAN be outsourced. What is always ignored is the marital relationship, and the difficulty of being a wife and a corporate chieftain. There is a very complicated gender relationship dynamic within marriages, and it has to do with sex and power and thousands of years of human history of what it means for a woman to be in a monogamous relationship with a man. And you can’t outsource the wifely role. Maybe the next generation will figure this one out, but ours hasn’t.



    October 29, 2012 at 5:21 pm

  7. […] the fourth and final post in a blog forum about inequality and organizational theory (see parts 1, 2, and 3). Michael Piore of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the Department of Economics […]


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