Is business open to female leaders?

Executive Summary

Decades after the first women took seats on corporate boards and began occupying corner offices, they remain under-represented in senior-most executive jobs and in boardrooms. Experts cite a variety of barriers to advancement, including lingering bias and career paths that don't lead to promotions. Tech companies increasingly are under scrutiny for their lack of diversity in hiring and leadership. In France, Norway, Germany and other European countries, companies must meet mandated quotas until women fill 30 to 40 percent of corporate board seats. Women's advocates argue that putting more women in charge can help a company's bottom line. “For the longest time the arguments that were made [for diversity were]: ‘It's the right thing to do.’ Now: ‘It's the smart thing to do,’” says David Gaddis Ross, a Columbia University professor of leadership. By some measures, women are succeeding in business. About three in 10 wives earn more than their husbands, and in 3.9 million couples, the woman is the only breadwinner, about twice as many as in 1985, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

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Gerzema, John, and Michael D'Antonio, “The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future,” Jossey-Bass, 2013. Two researchers explore how traditionally feminine traits are increasingly valued and sought in leaders in many countries.

Rosin, Hanna, “The End of Men and the Rise of Women,” Riverhead, 2012. An Atlantic magazine writer argues that men are no longer the dominant gender in a postindustrial economy that “is indifferent to men's size and strength.”

Sandberg, Sheryl, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Facebook's chief operating officer has drawn both praise and scorn for questioning why so few women are leaders.

Wilen-Daugenti, Tracey, Courtney L. Vien and Caroline Molina-Ray, eds., “Women Lead: Career Perspectives from Workplace Leaders,” Peter Lang, 2013. Drawing on surveys and more than 200 interviews, this book argues that women are increasingly valuable in an evolving economy.

Wolf, Alison, “The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World,” Crown Publishers, 2013. A professor of management shows the effects of women working from “the return of the servant classes” to the growth of powerful people marrying each other; well researched, with many examples from the United Kingdom.

Zweigenhaft, Richard L., and G. William Domhoff, “The New CEOs: Women, African American, Latino, and Asian American Leaders of Fortune 500 Companies,” Rowman & Littlefield, 2011. A statistics-filled look at minority leaders of Fortune 500 companies, including women, shows their backgrounds, educations and much more. Written by two professors who have studied minorities in powerful roles.


Burke, Daria, “What Lean In Means for Women of Color,” The Huffington Post, April 25, 2013, The founder and CEO of Black MBA Women reflects on Sheryl Sandberg's core messages in “Lean In.”

Lien, Tracey, “Why are women leaving the tech industry in droves?” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 22, 2015, Women in tech are opting out of the industry, some because they find the environment hostile.

Lublin, Joann S., “Men Pitch In to Boost Women at Work,” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2015, Some companies are encouraging men to work with women on gender equity and women's career advancement. One program helped male executives recognize their unconscious biases and to reach for more female candidates.

Rosin, Hanna, “Who Wears the Pants in this Economy?” The New York Times, Aug. 30, 2012, A look at the economic and societal shifts that are pushing jobs and power toward women and away from men.

Sandberg, Sheryl, and Adam Grant, “How Men Can Succeed in the Boardroom and in the Bedroom,” The New York Times, March 5, 2015, Teams need women or they risk falling behind, at work and at home too. This is part of a four-part series called “Women at Work.”

Smale, Alison, and Claire Caine Miller, “Germany Sets Gender Quota in Boardroom,” The New York Times, March 6, 2015, Germany joins a half dozen European countries in requiring that at least 30 percent of corporate board seats be filled by women.

Stilwell, Victoria, “Here's How Top Female Executives End Up Getting Paid Less Than Men,” Bloomberg Business, March 24, 2015, A Federal Reserve Bank of New York report shows disparities between men and women who receive stock options and other incentive pay—a finding that means women earn less than men even when a company is prospering and take a bigger hit when it suffers.

Wolfers, Justin, “Fewer Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John,” The Upshot, The New York Times, March 2, 2015, The Glass Ceiling Index shows how few women run S&P 1500 firms—of any name from Abby to Zara.

Reports and Studies

Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, and Tai Green, “Black Women: Ready to Lead,” Center for Talent Innovation, April 2015, The report documents key differences in the way black and white women perceive career goals, power and more.

“Examining the Cracks in the Ceiling: A Survey of Corporate Diversity Practices of the S&P 100,” Calvert Investments, March 2015, A report from a socially conscious investment firm takes a systematic look at major companies' diversity performance and policies, plus gives a ranking based on 10 measures.

“2013 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Executive Officers and Top Earners,” Catalyst, Dec. 10, 2013, An analysis of women in senior leadership jobs, including a breakdown by industry sector, shows that more than one quarter of companies had no women in executive officer roles.

“Women, Business and the Law 2014,” International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 2013, This report looks at the laws and legal restrictions that “make it difficult for women to fully participate in economic life” in 143 countries.

“Women Matter,” McKinsey & Co., undated, accessed April 15, 2015, Management consulting company's series of reports from 2007–14 examines women's roles in business around the world, their contribution to corporate performance and organizational health, barriers to their success and how well companies manage diversity.

Video and More

“The Broadsheet,” Fortune, accessed April 15, 2015, This five-day-a-week e-letter on women in leadership features an array of articles and commentary from many media outlets. Its subtitle is, “The dish on the world's most powerful women.”

“Lean In,” accessed April 15, 2015, The website of this women's success movement offers lectures and interviews with experts such as Joanna Barsh, author of “How Remarkable Women Lead,” and Joan C. Williams, a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings.

Ross, David, “Women in Management,” Columbia Business School, Sept. 20, 2012, An associate professor of management at the Columbia Business School explains why it matters to have women in senior executive positions.

The Next Step


Feintzeig, Rachel, “One Is Enough: Why There Aren't More Women Executives,” The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2015, Women's chances of landing executive positions drop by 51 percent if companies already have a female executive, according to researchers from the University of Maryland and Columbia University business schools.

Ferro, Shane, “Female execs should be flipping out about their compensation,” Business Insider, March 25, 2015, Informal networks in part explain why male executives earn more than their female counterparts and are less susceptible to pay cuts when their company performs poorly, according to research published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Ward, Jillian, “Women in U.K. Executive Director Roles Reach Record Numbers,” Bloomberg Business, March 25, 2015, Women filled 23.5 percent of board seats and almost 9 percent of executive director positions for the 100 most valuable companies on the London Stock Exchange in 2014, according to researchers from the Cranfield School of Management in the United Kingdom.

Family Life

Grose, Jessica, “It's Not Your Kids Holding Your Career Back. It's Your Husband,” Slate, Nov. 18, 2014, A study of 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates found that while only 20 percent of women had planned on their careers taking a back seat to their husbands' jobs, 40 percent said their husband's career ended up taking priority over theirs.

Mann, Leslie, “Family duties make women executives prone to depression: study,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 5, 2015, Women in top positions suffer from more depression symptoms than their male counterparts due to unequal pay, the lack of female peers and the stresses of juggling family and work, according to research by a University of Texas sociology professor.

Nawaz, Amna, “Pepsi CEO On Work Life Balance and Coping With Parental Guilt,” NBC News, July 2, 2014, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said in an interview that missing important events in her children's lives due to work commitments led to “mommy guilt.”


Anderson, Elizabeth, “Karen Blackett: ‘I haven't been openly judged on gender or skin colour, but I'm sure it goes on behind my back,’” The Telegraph, Nov. 17, 2014, The black, female chief executive of the United Kingdom's largest media agency said she believes the racism and sexism she has encountered throughout her career still exist among industry colleagues.

Demarinis, Olivia, “MLB News: Latina Official Files Suit Against MLB for Discrimination,” Latin Post, Dec. 13, 2014, A Latina executive who worked for Major League Baseball sued the league's commissioner and another supervisor for their failure to hire qualified Hispanic women for upper-management positions.

Giang, Vivian, “Why It's So Difficult for Minority Women to Find Mentors,” Fast Company, Jan. 5, 2015, A lack of minority women in upper-management roles and the competition between younger employees can prevent young minority women from finding career mentors, according to the founder of a women's career advocacy nonprofit.


Anderson, Jenny, “Quotas Not the Best Way to Add and Retain Women for Corporate Boards, Study Finds,” The New York Times, April 8, 2015, A nation's “female economic power” (the expected number of years of schooling for girls and the percentage of women working) and company governance codes supporting gender diversity are more influential factors than quotas for raising women's participation on company boards, according to research commissioned by the asset management firm BNY Mellon.

Bhalla, Nita, “Indian firms mock gender diversity as boardroom deadline passes: analysts,” Reuters, April 1, 2015, Some of India's largest companies appointed head managers' wives, daughters and stepmothers to boards on the deadline day for a new national quota requiring companies to have at least one female board director.

Davidson, Lauren, “Proof that women in boardrooms quotas work,” The Telegraph, Jan. 13, 2015, Three of the five countries with the highest concentrations of women on company boards raised participation rates by introducing national quota policies, according to the women's advocacy group Catalyst.


120 Wall St., 15th Floor, New York, NY 10005
Organization that seeks to expand opportunities for women in business through research, advocacy and awards.

Center for Women and Work
Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, 50 Labor Center Way, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8553
Focuses on policy issues for women's advancement in the workplace.

Center for WorkLife Law
Hastings College of the Law, University of California, Hastings, 200 McAllister St., San Francisco, CA 94102
Focuses on workplace discrimination against women.

Committee of 200
980 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1575, Chicago, IL 60611
A network of powerful businesswomen aimed at celebrating and advancing women in leadership positions and in entrepreneurship.

Executive Leadership Council
1001 N. Fairfax St., Suite 300, Alexandria, VA 22314
A membership organization that seeks to bring more blacks to C-suite and corporate boards through forums and outreach.

Forte Foundation
9600 Escarpment, Suite 745 PMB 72, Austin, TX 78749
Leading businesses and business schools conduct or support research on women's success, with the goal of placing women in “significant careers.”

Institute for Women's Policy Research
1200 18th St., N.W., Suite 301, Washington, DC 20036
Conducts research on women, including pay equity, immigration and education.

Lean In
855 El Camino Real, Building 5, Suite 350, Palo Alto, CA 94301
A social network aimed at encouraging women to pursue their ambitions; created by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg.

30% Club United Kingdom
+44 77 98 626282
International corporations, working through national chapters, aim to create better gender balance by developing in-house programs that place women in the corporate pipeline and on boards of directors.

DOI: 10.1177/2374556815586409