Do men really work harder than women?
Are they inherently more ambitious?
Are men more willing to sacrifice friends, family, and leisure time for success?
And if the answers to those questions are affirmative, is that why there are still so few women at the top of most organizations?
Those are the core questions we explore in this month's provocative cover story by senior writer Linda Tischler.
Clearly, this is controversial ground. For years, many have argued that the corporation has been an inhospitable place for women, a pressurized frat house where the rules have long favored the boys. Women not only fail to get most of the top jobs; they are often underpaid and underappreciated in the jobs they do hold.
So for all the progress that women have made, they still account for a shockingly minuscule percentage of the country's top executives. At the dawn of the 21st century, feminist law professor Susan Estrich noted that only 63 of the top 2,500 earners in the largest 500 public corporations were women.
The numbers are nearly as bad in accounting, law, and medicine. Only 8% of the partners at the Big Five accounting firms and just 14% of the partners in the top 250 law firms in America were women in 2000. In medical schools, 43% of new students and 26% of faculty are women, but only 7% of deans are female. Even in 2004, women remain a woefully neglected source of leadership talent.
I became intrigued once more by this issue a few months back when I came across an unpublished study written by two researchers at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. The study measured the career success (income, promotions, and career attitudes) of male and female MBAs at three separate points: their initial jobs after graduation, three to four years later, and again after another four years.
Professor Charles A. O'Reilly III and researcher Olivia A. O'Neill essentially argue that the paucity of women in top corporate jobs does not suggest any overt sex discrimination. Instead, they suggest that men generally work harder and want those top jobs more than women. Overall, they say, men are far more eager than women to work past 7 p.m. and on weekends, to relocate to any place in the world, and to give their vacation time back to the company.
"At the highest organizational levels," they write, "players are typically quite similar in terms of their ability. Those of lesser skill have been eliminated. At the highest levels, what differentiates the winners from losers is not ability, which has been equilibrated, but effort—how hard the contestants are willing to work. Individuals who are more loyal, work longer hours, and are willing to sacrifice for the organization are advantaged. Success is not limited to males but is dependent on choosing to play in the tournament."
Increasingly, many women believe the demands and sacrifices of corporate life are simply too high. In this case, we're not talking about the relatively few highly qualified and highly educated women who choose to simply opt out and go home to raise the kids. We're focusing on the majority of professional women who try to achieve some semblance of balance in their lives. Today's all-consuming corporate jobs do not allow them to raise their children, tend to elderly parents, and deal with other family chores. And more often than not, women bear the brunt of these responsibilities because their spouses fail to share fully in them.
Why is this important? Because if the Stanford researchers are right, it may mean that the meager leadership gains that women have made in recent years have come to an end. Instead of looking forward to increasing numbers of women in leadership roles, we may be witnessing the very peak. That would be a moral and a competitive shame. Read our story and tell us what you think.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.