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Why Most Women Won't Become CEO

I run a small technology firm.  We do business with a lot of larger technology companies.  I meet plenty of women in senior positions.  But it’s rare that I come across a female CEO.  Why is that?

Only recently, Meg Whitman was appointed CEO of HP.  And Virginia Rometty was just named CEO of IBM.   These are two smart women leading two giant technology firms.  But they are anomalies.  They are abnormal.   The fact is that most women just don’t make it to this level.

As of this past May, only twelve of the Fortune 500 companies were run by women.  This is down from fifteen the previous year.  Really?  In the world of Rosie, Oprah, Kim Kardashian and Hillary Clinton less than 3% of our largest companies have female leaders?

Look, I’m not surprised.  I’m a guy.  I know why.

Reason 1:  One Friday night I picked up my teenage son at the movies along with four of his teenage friends.  The ride home was filled with laughter, profanity, burps, flatulence and a few head slaps.  It took a week for the smell to dissipate.

Reason 2:  The next night I picked up my teenage daughter at the movies along with four of her teenage friends.  Deathly silence.  Apparently, one of the girls’ boyfriends at the theatre had made a remark about another girl’s makeup in the group.  He thought she looked…hot.  Oh boy.  Sides had been chosen.  And except for the occasional hissed whisper, no one was talking to each other.    It took two weeks for the tension to dissipate.

These are the reasons why most women do not become CEOs.

Ever seen what it’s like to be a woman in today’s workplace?   Sure, things have come a long way since the days of Mad Men.  I don’t see guys patting their secretaries on the backside or calling them “honey” or “darling.”   But the sexism is still there. It’s just more concealed. I’ve been in more than a few meetings where once an attractive female staffer leaves the room one or two of the guys will comment on her hotness.  This goes on, believe me. Guys are still checking out the girls in the office.  I see their body language noticeably change whenever a pretty female employee enters the room.  Words, thoughts and important points are missed because of a new perfume or a low cut blouse. It works the other way too.  The less attractive female employees are also frequently ignored…for the opposite reason.  Men are still trying to take women seriously in the workplace.  But most haven’t progressed beyond the maturity level of my teenage son and his friends.

But that’s just the beginning.  Women also have more personal and social pressures than men.  And this affects their ability to further their careers and get the experience they need to become good managers.  It’s common today for families to have two working parents.  But let’s admit it, when little Johnny gets sick at school who’s the first person that’s usually called?    When a child is up at night coughing, which parent is staying up with her?  When the plumber has to make an emergency morning visit, who’s generally staying at home to deal with it?

It’s usually mom.  And even if she has a full time job too.

When my wife and I were younger and our baby would cry in the middle of the night I would put a pillow…over my head.  That stopped the crying for sure.  My wife (who was working full time by the way) was the one who got out of bed to care for the child.  Yes, I was an ass.  I’m not saying that many dads don’t pitch in or try to do their fair share.  But as much as women have achieved in earning their equality, there are still some age old cultural habits that won’t die.  Children need their mommies.  And most moms I know, whether they have a full time job or not, want to be there for their child.  I know plenty of women who admit they struggle with this instinctual tug on their gut.  Men don’t have this kind of instinctual tug.  Let’s face it:  unless there’s beer involved, men don’t have many instincts at all.   We figure our wives will ultimately handle these things.  And in many cases, they just do.

Which puts a noticeable strain on a woman’s career.  She can be earning twice what her husband earns but that’s still not enough.  She’s also expected to be a good mom too (and a good daughter-in-law, and a good housekeeper and a good neighbor).  And if she’s not “there” for her kids then she’s criticized. She can’t win.  And by choosing her family responsibilities over her professional responsibilities (which, by the way, is the right thing to do in my opinion) she leaves her flank open to the men in her office who can do the things she can’t do because she’s not there to do it.  The men running companies look at each other and nod in sympathy when Joyce misses that meeting because of a sick child.  But they move on, with Richard stepping in to replace her.  Business continues.  And Joyce is left out in the cold.

And by the way…quadruple that pressure for women trying to raise children on their own.

Like my teenage son and his friends, men can also get away with more stupidity. They can make the occasional inappropriate joke and then just apologize. If a woman does that she’s treated like a leper. Men can sprinkle profanity in their conversation and it endears them as one of the folks.  God forbid if a woman drops an f-bomb in the office – she’s a total you-know-what (hint:  it’s not a snitch).  Men can date women thirty years younger and get high fives from their peers.  As much as many women would like to do that (oh, I see my wife checking out those college guys playing Frisbee on the beach!) they just won’t.  Because they can’t.   Men can make mistakes like this and get off with a warning. Women are held to a much higher standard.

That’s because the standards in today’s business world are still made and enforced…by men. And guys say to themselves: how would we feel if that was our daughter? Which is why we joke about the woman teacher that had a one-nighter with the high school football player.  And then we’re enraged by the male teacher who did the same thing with one of his female students.  Women are not allowed to make off-color jokes.  They have to appear to be embarrassed by that YouTube video.   They could never comment on the looks of a fellow co-worker.  They shouldn’t be talking about how many beers they consumed the night before. Men can do all of this with ease and not be judged by their bosses. Women cannot. And this limits their ability to connect with other employees and build the kind of invisible bonds that men get to build.  Bonds that help these same men progress further in their companies than their female co-workers.

A woman’s physical appearance is way more under the radar than a man’s.  Look at the women who do make it to the very top of technology companies:  Whitman, Rometty, Carly Fiornia.  Notice something?  Um….they’re good looking!  They are slim, attractive, well put together.  Do you think a woman who looks like Reid Hoffman stands a chance at becoming CEO?

Don’t deny it- a female’s looks are held to a much higher level of scrutiny than a man’s.  A guy can pull any one of his two or three suits out of a closet and throw it on  top of the same shirt he wore the previous day (and probably the same undershirt too).  Most women in the workplace spend hours putting themselves together.  They always have to appear like it’s 9AM.  They’re not allowed to let their guard down, even if they’re working late into the evening.  Because men (and other women) will judge their appearance.  And make comments to each other like, “sure she’s OK, but remember how she looked that night we were putting together the proposal?  Yeesh!”  Yes, men say that stuff.  And then they let these things cloud their decision making when it’s promotion time.  It happens.

All these things add up.  The surreptitious judgments in the office.  The social pressures.  The double-standard of behaviors.  The burden of maintaining physical appearances. And you know what happens?  Most women throw in the towel.  They don’t want to put up with it.  They leave the corporate world to raise families.  Or start their own small businesses.  And if they stay in the corporate world many do so without aspirations of becoming the top dog.  They don’t want the headaches, the scrutiny, or the responsibility.

So who’s left?  The women with the thickest skin.  Which is not always the best qualification to be an effective CEO.   This is why we don’t see as many women CEOs as we do men.  Still.  Yes, women have advanced a great deal in the business world. Unfortunately, the business world hasn’t advanced along with them. I’m not sure this will change anytime soon.  Because remember:  MY son and his idiot friends are the up and coming generation.  It ain’t pretty.

*Thanks to Justine for sending this

Filed under women ceo ceos female ceos advancement glass ceiling meg whitman virginia rometty fortune 500 forbes mad men workplace women in the workplace career family children pressure carly fiornia reid hoffman judge double standard social pressure double standards beauty image self-esteem

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