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  • by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett
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Sweeping media coverage of a few female CEOs distracts us from how few women are advancing in corporate America. In this Jan. 14, 2013, file photo, General Motors Senior Vice President Mary Barra is seen during presentation of the North American Car & Truck of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Barra was named GM CEO on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, making her the first woman to lead a U.S. car company. (Carlos Osorio, File/AP)

The American news media rightly gave sweeping coverage to the story of the first woman — Mary Barra — to head up a U.S. auto company, General Motors.

But it almost completely ignored another — arguably much bigger — story about women in corporate America. According to new research, overall, women are going nowhere in the senior ranks of U.S. business.

Female representation on corporate boards has been shockingly flat for 10 years, according to the Alliance Board for Diversity’s recent report “Missing Pieces.”

While the news media give huge play to a few ‘star’ women like GM’s Barra, Yahoo’s Melissa Mayer, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the larger story of stasis is barely visible.

And a 2013 report from the research firm Catalyst finds that for each of the last two years, women held a dismal 16.9 percent of board seats among Fortune 500 companies. In both years, less than one-fifth of companies had 25 percent or more women directors, while one-tenth had no women serving on their boards. Less than one-quarter of companies had three or more women directors serving together in both 2012 and 2013.

Women of color did worse than women as a group. While African American women make up 13 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census, they only held 3.2 percent of board seats, essentially the same as the previous year (3.3 percent).

Media giant Twitter was chided this year for having no women at all on its boards despite that fact that the majority of its users are female. Sadly, Twitter is not alone. Almost half of publicly traded information technology businesses have no women on their boards, according to the New York Times. 

While the news media give huge play to a few ”star” women like GM’s Barra, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the larger story of stasis is barely visible. Female success becomes a “meme,” while the fact that women are falling behind in the workforce gets lost.

British biologist Richard Dawkins, author of “The Selfish Gene,” coined the term “meme” as a unit of culture change. Just as genes organize and manage the structure of the human body, memes do the same for the body politic, he explains. Memes are ideas that spread throughout a culture, and the media are a major engine of their transmission. 

So, the ballyhoo about a few high-flying women may indeed give other women false hope about their own chances of moving up the ladder.  TWEET Indeed, research finds that when women focus on female successes over the years, they tend to think that think that all the battles have been fought, that gender discrimination is a thing of the past and that the future is a rosy one for their careers. If they fail to advance, they assume they are doing something wrong, looking only to themselves and not to structural issues in the workplace.

If women are encountering not their individual failures, but subtle discrimination, and deeply entrenched gender stereotypes, they will be rowing against the tide, wondering why they are not getting anywhere.

But in our review of many studies for our book, “The New Soft War on Women,” we found that gender discrimination has not vanished. It has simply gone underground and become more subtle, making it harder to see and therefore even more dangerous than in the past.

If women are encountering not their individual failures, but subtle discrimination, and deeply entrenched gender stereotypes, they will be rowing against the tide, wondering why they are not getting anywhere.

Psychologists Michael T. Schmitt and Jennifer Spoor at Queensland University, Australia, who have studied women’s sunny — but false — optimism, worry about this problem.  Believing that all the gender struggles are old history, they warn, can have “the ironic effect of maintaining the glass ceiling and rendering the barriers even more invisible.”

This piece was co-written by Rosalind C. Barnett. Barnett is a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

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  • LeadingWomen

    If you find value in this article and in Caryl and Rosalind’s work, you will appreciate this TED Talk on Closing the Leadership Gender Gap http://youtu.be/3PRq7zx_Umo

  • Caroline Turner

    I’m anxious to read your new book. While I celebrate the successes of these high profile women, they represent a tiny percentage of the ideal, proportional representation of women at all levels of business. Women are still just 8% of the most highly compensated though they are over 50% of middle management. Leaders tend to focus on the “family issue” rather than attacking the unconscious mind-sets that create barriers for women. Maybe your book addresses them. Mine does. Difference Works addresses masculine-feminine differences and how unintended barriers keep business from achieving gender diversity at the top. http://www.difference-works.com

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