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Differing Views of the Executive Ceiling

Careers: Surveys of female execs and male CEOs at Fortune 1,000 companies show the two don't agree on the obstacles women face.


Why aren't more women making it to the top of America's biggest companies?

Part of the problem, suggests a report released Tuesday, is that the men heading the leading U.S. corporations and their top-ranking female executives still don't see eye-to-eye on what barriers women face.

That executive gender gap emerged in a pair of surveys of executives at Fortune 1,000 companies conducted by Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit organization focusing on women's career issues.

In what was billed as the first large-scale study of women in senior management, Catalyst found that 52% of the 461 female executives it surveyed consider "male stereotyping and preconceptions of women" a major career obstacle. The next-biggest obstacle named was "exclusion from informal networks," which was cited by 49% of the female executives.

But chief executives of Fortune 1,000 companies--more than 99% of whom are men--sharply disagreed with the women. Among the 325 Fortune 1,000 CEOs polled by Catalyst in its companion survey, an overwhelming 82% called "lack of significant general management or line experience" the main deterrent to women's advancement.

Consequently, although both groups expressed strong optimism about the advancement of women in the future, the executive women--unlike the male CEOs--"don't believe it's just a matter of time" before things change, said Catalyst President Sheila Wellington.

Still, Wellington said the surveys found enough consensus to point out what female executives need to do to progress further: Gain more experience in line management jobs and stop clustering in staff-support areas such as public affairs and human resources.

"Until more women become plant managers, heads of sales and marketing, vice presidents for operations [and] division presidents . . . with substantial profit-and-loss responsibilities, the pipeline to corporate leadership will continue to lack a critical mass of women," the report says.

As for the women who already have zoomed high up the rungs of Fortune 1,000 companies, they cited two factors as crucial to their success: consistently performing on the job beyond expectations and developing a work style with which male managers are comfortable.

One female executive, quoted anonymously in a follow-up interview by Catalyst, credited her success to "being willing to work much harder than male peers."

To work smoothly with male executives, many of the women stressed, it's important to maintain a sense of humor and be a team player. For instance, a female senior vice president at a retail company said that she is "really into sports and can talk sports with the best of them . . . and I think that's how I disarm them. . . . As soon as I turn the subject to sports, they think, 'Oh, she's not that different, I can relate to her.' "

In fact, Catalyst's Wellington said many executive women have learned to play golf and have made it one of their main leisure activities. She noted that one respondent to the survey "said she considered it so important that it actually is part of her work."

The report also notes that female executives--even as they battle stereotypes questioning their ability to both hold demanding jobs and raise children--struggle to strike a balance between work and family. Of the executive women included in the survey, 72% are married and 64% have children.

The vast majority of the women surveyed, 85%, employ domestic help, and while 55% say they still have time to pursue some of their personal interests, such as golf, 54% say they have had to curtail personal interests.

"They're giving up sleep and outside activities to make the balance work," Wellington said.

Among the 461 women who participated in the survey, about 40% report to the CEO or are one reporting level away from the top. Eighty-one percent are within two levels of CEO.

The women--all vice presidents or higher at Fortune 1,000 companies--earn an average of $248,000 a year, and 91% earn more than $100,000. Catalyst estimates that 5% of senior management jobs at Fortune 1,000 companies are held by women.


Barriers for Female Executives

Chief executives and women in senior management disagree on what prevents women from advancing into top corporate positions.

Male stereotyping and preconceptions about women

Executive women: 52%

CEOs: 25%

Exclusion from informal communications networks

Executive women: 49%

CEOs: 15%

Lack of general management / experience

Executive women: 47%

CEOs: 82%

Inhospitable corporate culture

Executive women: 35%

CEOs: 18%

Not in the pipeline long enough

Executive women: 29%

CEOs: 64%

Note: Percentages based on answers from 461 executive women and 325 chief executives at Fortune 1,000 companies.

Source: Catalyst

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