WSJ report finds that glass ceiling for women CEOs remains in place


A recent study by the Wall Street Journal found that, although women make up a larger share of the chief executive officer role than ever before, they remain significantly underrepresented in CEO positions. Specifically, the number of women CEOs in the United States’ top 3,000 companies has more than doubled in the last ten years to 167; yet that number is still less than 6% of all CEOs.

Outdated biases help keep women out of P&L roles

The WSJ study found that where women are promoted to C-level positions, they often end up as the head of human resources, legal, or another administrative department. These positions, while undeniably important, do not directly generate profit for companies. And it is the C-level positions that manage profits and losses which usually feed into CEO positions.

As a result, by keeping women out of these positions, companies are weeding women out of their top role. This exclusion is felt even more among women of color, who are less likely to say their bosses gave them management opportunities or helped them navigate politics within a corporation.

After conducting dozens of interviews, the WSJ study cited various reasons for why companies are still keeping women out of P&L and CEO roles, including:

  • work-life responsibilities, and
  • entrenched attitudes about women and what it takes to be a leader.

Even as men take on more care-taking roles, women remain responsible for the majority of childrearing duties in many families. And even where women are not, company decision-makers too often assume that women will not be able to give as much effort to their work because of family commitments. These antiquated attitudes about a woman’s ability to lead and put in the time and energy necessary to manage profits and losses closely mirror attitudes that perpetuate the glass ceiling across industries.

The study finds that men hold the majority of P&L and CEO roles, and they are more likely to train other male colleagues in their expertise areas. Without a steady pipeline in companies for women to reach CEO, the study found, those who make it to the top will be a fluke rather than the norm.

Promotion discrimination explained

Glass ceiling discrimination is a form of promotion discrimination. Where an employer refuses to promote someone because of their protected status, including because she is a woman, this violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To prove a prima facie case of employment discrimination, an employee must prove:

1)    She is a member of a protected class (i.e., she is a woman, African American, or Muslim);

2)    Her employer took an adverse employment action against her (this includes being denied a promotion or being fired);

3)    The employer took the adverse action because of the employee’s protected characteristic.

After an employee proves her prima facie case, the employer must offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for taking the adverse employment action. After the employer offers a nondiscriminatory reason, the employee must show that the offered reason is in fact pretext for discrimination.

Promotion discrimination and the glass ceiling

Where corporations promote women to certain senior positions but keep them out of CEO and other C-level roles because of their gender, this may violate the law. Progress has been made on this front, but it remains slow and fitful. To make significant inroads, companies must constantly assess their hiring and promotion practices at all levels to ensure an equal opportunity for all.

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