From diligent homemakers and caring mothers to holding the reins of a blue-chip company, women can pretty much do it all.
However, out of the 100 best-performing CEOs the Harvard Business Review dug up earlier this year, only two were female. Meg Whitman, who calls the shots at Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) , earned the ninth spot. Dong Mingzhu, the CEO of China-based Gree Electric Appliances, claimed the 98th spot. Overall, women hold only 14.6% of all executive positions at companies that rank on the Fortune 500 list.
But when last week Mary Barra was named chief executive of General Motors (NYSE: GM ) , breaking a glass ceiling in one of the most male-dominated industries in the U.S., I couldn't help but wonder, are we living in a woman's world after all?
All things being equal...
Despite countless achievements in the status of women over the last century, gender inequality still remains the elephant in the room. According to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on measuring people's wellbeing worldwide, "gender inequality manifests in unequal opportunities for participation in political and economic decision-making; limited access to labor market; higher poverty rates for female-headed households..." and the list goes on.
Especially in most developed countries, gender inequality persists in the form of stereotypes about gender roles that undercut women's opportunities. And Silicon Valley is not an exception to the rule. When CNN buttonholed some of the big names in the tech world asking questions about the gender diversity of their workforce, most of them kept their employee data dark. Only five companies shared gender figures -- Cisco, Dell, eBay, Intel, and Ingram Micro -- and the upshot was not something to cheer for. The data showed that women were underrepresented at the highest levels, holding barely 20% of all officer and manager positions.
So, should women just stop chasing rainbows or is there more to this burning issue than meets the eye?
The paradox of the contented female worker
Is it possible that women themselves are partly to blame for the gender gap in the "C-suite"?
First and foremost, while it's not set in stone that chief executives must have an Ivy League degree, if you want to make it to corporate top brass you need some kind of formal education. But when it comes to exploring education options, it's women who are usually on the wrong track.
Based on the OECD's key findings, "gender differences in the choice of major field of study are likely to translate into gender segregation in the workforce, with significant economic consequences for women." On top of that, over the past decade or so, female enrollment in MBA programs hasn't been increasing.
Moreover, there is always the "paradox of the contented female worker" -- the finding that while women may earn less than men, they still feel just as satisfied with their job as their male counterparts. This is mainly because what women consider to be the key to a happy work life has more to do with achieving the ever-elusive balance between work and family, such as flexible schedules, and how meaningful is the task at hand. Men, on the other hand, are more rational and usually chase jobs with big earning potential down the line -- classic CEO material.
What if women were in charge?
Rather than yammering about why there are so few women CEOs, why not focus on the fact that more women than ever before have reached the corner office? So, if we were living in a parallel universe, where women are in charge, what would our lives be like?
For starters, would the U.S. economy be so profoundly unequal? A survey conducted by Ann Mari May, professor of economics at the University of Nebraska, indicates that "U.S. economists' views vary by gender with potential implications for national policy making." May says that while economists share core views on economic methodologies and principles, female economists are much more likely to buck for government intervention to smooth income inequality.
Secondly, would Wall Street be a much more reliable place? Lily Fang, associate professor of finance at INSEAD, examined the factors influencing men's versus women's odds of being promoted or evaluated as an all-star stock analyst. She spotted an eye-catching asymmetry: For women, demonstrated competence, accuracy in forecasts, and education mattered the most. For men, whether they were friends with some of the big guns in the financial world or not made all the difference.
Mary Barra is the "woman for the job." She has a perfect resume and an impressive track record of accomplishment -- just as many other women professionals do in their respective fields. Even so, for women in general, the barriers on the way to the boardroom are as invisible as ever.
Yet, when it comes to getting the corner office, shouldn't women -- as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, argues -- "sit at the table" and "raise their hand" more often?
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