Practical analysis for investment professionals
25 November 2014

Women’s Work: Getting Ahead Despite Glass Ceilings, Glass Cliffs, and Leaky Pipelines

On 18–19 September, CFA Institute will host Alpha and Gender Diversity 2017 in Toronto, the latest in its series of Women in Investment Management events. Attendees will have opportunities to discuss gender diversity, foster professional development, and meet their peers from other regions in North America.

Back in the 1970s, as feminism gained momentum worldwide, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 1975 “International Women’s Year.” A year later, McKinsey Quarterly published an article with the headline: “Sex Bias: Still in Business.” The author, Jim Bennett, had a stern message for the titans of industry: “The principle that no category of employees should suffer discrimination at the hands of the organization is crystal clear when the treatment of racial or religious groups is at issue. It must apply just as unequivocally to women.” He implored male corporate executives to “do the right thing.”

“Achieving equal opportunity for working women is possible,” he said. “It is up to the men who currently run industry to do the right thing and get on with the job.”

Fast forward 38 years. It is November 2014 and this is how the firm teed up the article in a recent email: “Despite much talk of equal opportunity for women, discrimination persists in business. This 1976 McKinsey Quarterly article, part of a series celebrating our 50th anniversary, shows how companies should correct disparities that are illegal, immoral, and bad for business.”

It is dispiriting, to say the least, that the “Sex Bias” article is just as germane today as it was when it was first published. Women have made enormous inroads into fields long considered male bastions, including the financial industry, but too many still bump up against the glass ceiling, or find themselves pushed off “the glass cliff.”

(As if ceilings and cliffs were not enough, we can now add a plumbing metaphor to the list. In a recent speech on diversity in the economics profession, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said the American Economics Association had examined the so-called “leaky pipeline” to determine “why some groups are more likely to abandon economics education and work before, and even after, receiving PhDs.”)

This year, the number of Fortune 500 women CEOs reached a historic high. But to put that in perspective, these women represent a small percentage — just 4.8% — of all CEOs on the list. Women are also still largely absent from corporate boards.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women reached the peak of their labor force participation — 60 percent — in 1999. Since then, however, that rate has fallen.

Women make up more than half of the professional and technical workforce in the United States, and yet the gender gap persists.

Clearly, more needs to be done to promote female leadership in the ranks of the financial industry — and other professions. We need more women in c-suites and boardrooms. (At CFA Institute, women comprise around 60% of the workforce. We’re not as well represented, however, when it comes to the Leadership Team and Board of Governors.)

We know that diverse management teams tend to outperform the competition, yet gender parity in upper management remains elusive.

Fortunately, gender diversity is a topic that has received a lot of attention in the past few years thanks, in large part, to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) and author of the bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Sandberg’s role as a champion of women started with her 2010 TED talk, “Sandberg: Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” which went viral with 4.8 million views. The following year she delivered a commencement address to the Barnard College Class of 2011. Then, in 2013, Lean In hit the bookshelves. To date, over 1.75 million copies have been sold; it has been translated into 28 languages, and by the end of 2014, it will be published in eight more.

But there is more than one voice in this conversation. And the one that immediately comes to mind is Anne-Marie Slaughter, of “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” fame. (Slaughter is president and CEO of the New America Foundation.)

If you haven’t yet read Slaughter’s “explosive” 2012 cover story for The Atlantic, here’s the gist: Women can “have it all.” Just not today. Not with the way the US economy and society are structured.

Jodi Kantor, writing in The New York Times, said Slaughter’s article ignited “an instant debate about a new conundrum of female success: women have greater status than ever before in human history, even outpacing men in education, yet the lineup at the top of most fields is still stubbornly male. Is that new gender gap caused by women who give up too easily, unsympathetic employers or just nature itself?

So where does all of this leave us? If we women just believe in ourselves, give it our all, and “lean in,” will we succeed and be promoted to top leadership positions? Or should we stop fooling ourselves?

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, businesses and organizations must do more to develop female talent, mentor and promote women, and create work environments that recognize that being a breadwinner and a caregiver are not mutually exclusive.

In her 2013 TED Talk, “Can We All ‘Have It All’?” Slaughter said, “Real equality, full equality, does not just mean valuing women on male terms. It means creating a much wider range of equally respected choices for women and for men. And to get there we have to change out workplaces, our policies, and our culture. In the workplace, real equality means valuing family just as much as work, and understanding that the two reinforce each other.”

Over the past few months, whenever I came across a good article, TED talk, radio segment, or documentary, I jotted it down (regardless of whether or not I agreed with the author or speaker). I simply asked myself: Did I learn something? Was it thought-provoking?

I’ve discussed some of these articles with friends and colleagues (men and women), and whether or not you believe “leaning in” is the answer or that women can or can’t “have it all,” what really matters is the conversation around the issue of gender bias and work. As one of my female colleagues put it in an email exchange: “The way forward and towards change is having the CONVERSATION in the first place.”
Yes, women need to improve their leadership and team management skills, become smarter negotiators, and participate on more corporate and nonprofit boards. But we also need to broker the discussion. In the spirit of that conversation, here are some of my top picks:

Time for Just One Article? Read This:

    • In “Women and Power: Seven Ways Successful Women Survive,” Davia Temin writes that “evolving research is shedding new light on power, gender differences regarding the use of power, and how powerful women can succeed in complex organizations.” She notes that “some of these insights are not positive or politically correct, but they do help explain gender gaps in finance and other industries. Of particular interest post-2008 is that in crises, leaders tend to be more comfortable with people who are like them. They can speak almost in shorthand, work more cohesively as a team, worry less about miscommunication or misperception and come together more easily to confront tough issues. Of course, research has shown that diverse teams make better choices when faced with complex issues.” Temin outlines seven strategies, validated by research, to help women attain and remain in power, regardless of the industry they work in. (American Banker)

When I showed the article to a male friend of mine, a former litigator at a big national law firm, he said he agreed with Temin’s two observations above. “But,” he added, “I find a number of the research conclusions (the seven that are listed and numbered) pretty discouraging . . . And I think that the only way this ever changes is if MEN start to internalize this research.”

What Does the Research Have to Say about Gender and Power?

The Great Debate: Can Women “Have It All”?

Women As Risk-Takers and Decision Makers

What Does It Take to Succeed?

How Did We Get Here?

Feminist Icon: Wonder Woman

Is there a book, article, film, radio segment, or TED Talk that you think should be on the list? What do you think is missing from the conversation? What was the best career advice you ever got? What advice would you give to your daughters, granddaughters, sisters, or nieces? Tell us what you think by posting your comments in the section below.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©

About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster is a content director on the professional learning team at CFA Institute and host of the Take 15 Podcast. She is the former managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Lauren spent nearly a decade on staff at the Financial Times as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau, followed by freelance writing for Barron’s and the FT. Lauren holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

6 thoughts on “Women’s Work: Getting Ahead Despite Glass Ceilings, Glass Cliffs, and Leaky Pipelines”

  1. Great article. Thought-provoking. Thanks for all the great sources and other articles!

  2. Davia Temin says:

    Lauren, I am so pleased (and honored) that you point out my article “Women and Power: Seven Ways Successful Women Survive,” as the one to read if you only have time to read one… I knew when writing it that it would be controversial, and it has been. But, I am so tired of seeing the disparity between what we say we want to be true — our aspirations — and the reality. And when reality hasn’t been keeping pace, I do believe one must turn to dispassionate research for enlightenment. There is a huge amount of compelling research, and you quote much of it in your article…we can’t ignore it. But I think we can address it wisely and effectively, as long as we don’t go into denial… As a coach, that is what I advocate — seeing clearly, and acting strategically. Thank you for passing it along.

    1. Hi Davia

      I look forward to seeing more articles from you on this topic. We all need to do more of what you advocate — see clearly and act strategically. Thanks for reading.


  3. We are also at the nascent stages of applying evolutionary biology to this topic. After we began living in tribes and specializing by gender, our brains tripled in size, which means male and female brains developed instincts for different survival skills. When you apply different instincts to the workplace, the ones who are most highly valued are the ones whose instincts are rewarded by the design of the environment, and since most systems of commerce were designed by men, they naturally do better, by the metrics they created. This is evolving, but it’s important to acknowledge how much of this is the legacy of two million years of evolution.

  4. Thanks for all your research! I was just sent your article in response to my TEDx Women talk. The link to my talk went live yesterday.

    Here it is:

    I’ve just spent 7 years researching male/female brain differences in order to coach men and women optimally. I used it as background for my Master’s thesis in Management Coaching. I wanted to make a distinction between gender behaviors (cultural) and actual sex differences (neurobiological). When you look at our brains you see that we are either incompatible or complementary. How we collaborate makes the difference.

    1. Hi Mary

      Collaboration is indeed key. Thanks for passing along the link to your TEDx talk. I will take a look.


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