Why smart women still don't make it up the career ladder
Though women have crowded out the guys in classrooms, they still find themselves to be the outsiders in most career fields. It’s not just work/life policies and misogynistic office environments that are stifling women's progress. The truth is, women still have a confidence problem.
There are fewer men in mortarboards these days, no doubt about it. According to census data released last month, American women surpassed men in both undergraduate and graduate degrees for the first time in history.Skip to next paragraph
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But before we declare this the happy ending of a feminist fairytale, we must look at the more sinister afterword. Between graduation stages and bonafide success in any number of fields, women simply disappear.
While nearly half of law schools grads are women, only about 16 percent of equity partners at the top 200 largest law firms are. Nearly one-third of MBAs are earned by women today, but corporate boards of Fortune 100 companies are still comprised of just 15 percent women. About half of those earning MFAs are women, and yet about 23 percent of solo shows in New York galleries feature work done by women.
So what gives?
What shuts women out?
In part, fields like these and so many others, are still clinging to the last vestiges of old-fashioned patriarchy – job opportunities doled out over beers with buddies, unexamined misogyny in hiring and promotion practices, and blind eyes turned left and right to sexual harassment. Though women have crowded out the guys in classrooms around the country, they still find themselves to be the outsiders in science labs, corporate firms, and Chelsea galleries.
Many studies confirm that until a minority group constitutes a critical mass – usually placed at 30 percent – it is in danger of conforming to the dominant culture (i.e. all those terrible pantsuits and shoulder pads in the 80’s), getting burned out by the heavyweight of tokenization (as if one woman on the team could accurately represent one-half of the human population), or dropping out altogether.
Every one of these fields where women are poorly represented has “pipeline issues” – places where the flow of smart, capable women gets diverted because of poor infrastructure, extraneous red tape, and a dearth of mentoring opportunities. Take architecture as an example. Women make up about 40 percent of graduates in the field, but thanks to the insanely lengthy and exploitative licensure process, they are only about 10 percent of the 110,000 registered architects in the United States.
Sometimes, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett and others have argued, women lose their way in the treacherous maternal journey of “on-ramping” and “off-ramping” (off-roading seems more accurate a metaphor in these tough economic times). But it’s not adequate, or even accurate, to blame women’s stubborn insistence on mothering for their mysterious disappearance from these male-dominated fields. Is it so much to ask that we create work cultures that allow women (and men, for that matter) to work and perpetuate the human race without losing their minds?
Women aren't socialized to own their strengths
But it’s not just work/life policies and crusty old office environments that are cramping women’s career styles. It’s unfashionable to admit this, but the truth is that women still have a confidence problem. As Mary Pipher first argued in her bestselling 1995 book, “Reviving Ophelia,” when girls turn 13, societal and familial forces compel too many of them to exchange their healthy egos for a whole world of hurt and humility.