Why The Gender Gap Still Has Not Closed

A day after the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, and nearly halfway through the 30th Women’s History Month, some dispiriting news: gender equality—at least when it comes to the corporate world—is still a myth. A new report by the World Economic Forum finds that even though more women are employed around the world than ever before, and now make up 52 percent of U.S. workers, major multinational companies are failing to capitalize on their talents. In surveys with human-resources executives at 600 companies across 16 industries and 20 countries, the Forum's Corporate Gender Gap Report found that disparities in education and health have all but disappeared worldwide, but when it comes to political empowerment and economic participation, women haven't advanced much. "Women are as healthy and as educated as men," the study's author, Saadia Zahidi explains, but "no country, and few companies, have actually reached gender equity."

In the United States, the study shows that female employees still tend to be concentrated in entry- or mid-level positions, and that the biggest barrier to female leadership isn't parenthood or opting out (as conventional wisdom would have it), but "masculine or patriarchal corporate culture" and a "lack of mentors." Women still make 78 cents for every dollar a man earns in the United States, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity—an inequity that is repeated the world over—and one that is often blamed on motherhood. (As The Economist recently put it, ”it’s motherhood, not sexism” that is holding women back.) But as this study and a slew of recent evidence shows, the problem is far bigger than motherhood alone. A new Catalyst survey shows that young MBA graduates make some $4,600 less than their male counterparts from the moment they step foot in the workforce; U.S. education data shows young women, a year out of college, bring home just 80 percent what their male colleagues do, regardless of profession. "Young women start in jobs that are lower paid, with lower status, and they have less job satisfaction overall," says Herminia Ibarra, a professor at INSEAD, the European Institute of Business Administration, and one of the study's authors.

The WEF report, coupled with the Catalyst study and other recent data, suggest that the equality that many men and women may have thought was well established is, in fact, still a long way off. A recent report by the White House Project shows that U.S. women are still just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and less than a third of politicians and law-firm partners—despite being the majority of college graduates and a near majority of law-school grads. A woman may have won the Oscar for best director this past weekend—for the first time in the history of the Academy Awards—but 83 percent of the writers, producers, and directors of 2007's 100 highest-grossing films were men, a recent U.S.C. Annenburg study found; in those films, fewer than 30 percent of speaking roles were played by women. Women have made up the majority of college journalism majors since 1977 and two of the three network TV anchor chairs are now occupied by women, but female bylines at the 11 top political and intellectual magazines are still outnumbered by a rate of 7 to 1, according to the White House Project. The same imbalance can even apply to the Web, where the founder of a popular copywriting Web site, "Men With Pens," revealed late last year that "he" was actually a she. "It's a fact that the majority of business is conducted by men," James Chartrand (she continues to use her nom de Web) told NEWSWEEK. "So I assumed, if I choose a male name I'll be viewed as somebody who runs a company, not a mom sitting at home with a child hanging off her leg." (Chartrand said her business doubled once she began using a male name.)

In an era when companies have adopted antidiscrimination policies based on gender, why are women still hitting up against a glass ceiling? Mostly, it's the persistence of longstanding workplace norms. You can blame "culture, culture, culture," says Ibarra. "The U.S. always scores abysmally in terms of work/life balance," says the WEF's chief operating officer Kevin Steinberg. "But even here, culture still ranks as the highest impediment to success."

According to the study's authors, the gender gap isn't just costing women their careers and promotions, it's costing companies profits and the nation a significant amount in economic growth. WEF estimates that closing the employment gender gap could increase U.S. GDP by up to 9 percent. Recent research from London Business School, meanwhile, suggests that productivity levels go up when men and women work together in tandem—in part because gender parity counters the idea of group think, or the frequency of like-minded groups to defend ideas that may be ill conceived. "Companies that have men and women in leadership positions have a higher return on their investment," says Judy Rosener, a business professor at U.C. Irvine and an expert on workplace gender politics. Simply put, "Difference does not mean deficiency. Difference means added value." It's a lesson as old as time, but one that clearly bears repeating.

Join the Discussion