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May 3, 2012

Why are women underrepresented at the top of careers?

Lisa D. Vesterlund, the Andrew W. Mellon Chair in Economics

Lisa D. Vesterlund, the Andrew W. Mellon Chair in Economics

For the past three decades, women have made up nearly half of law school graduates and almost one-third of MBAs. Yet when it comes to lawyers and executives at the highest levels, women represent a much smaller proportion.

In her lecture, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” economics professor Lise D. Vesterlund shared some research-based insights on gender differences that contribute to women’s underrepresentation in the top ranks of their professions.

Her April 26 talk, part of the Provost’s Inaugural Lecture series, celebrated her appointment as the Andrew W. Mellon Chair in Economics.

“Particularly striking is how strong the vertical segregation continues to be,” she said. “When we look across professions, women hold very, very few of the senior positions.”

In the corporate sector, while women make up about 30 percent of MBA classes, only 1.2 percent of Fortune 500 companies and an even smaller percentage of Fortune 1000 companies have female CEOs, she said.

Women make up only 16 percent of the board members in Fortune 500 companies and only 2.5 percent of the five highest-paid executive positions in U.S. firms are held by women.

“We see lots of women coming through the ranks who potentially could be qualified for these positions; we don’t see them holding them,” Vesterlund said.

Similar differences are seen in law firms: Since the early 1980s, about half of all JD students have been female. Gender balances among seventh-year law associates — the time when an attorney should be becoming a partner — remain relatively equal: 44 percent women and 56 percent men, Vesterlund said.

But then things change. “There are lots of women ready to jump in, yet when you look at equity partners, only 15 percent are women. The same thing happens with non-equity partners,” where women represent only 25 percent, she said. “They’re just not making it to the very top level.”

Vesterlund said there are many possible explanations for why this is happening. “It could be discrimination. It could just be that women are not good at being managers. … There could be different abilities. … It could be that there are differences in preferences for jobs or that women prefer to spend more time with their children and stay home.”

Drawing on her research into gender differences, she said, “Competitiveness and willingness to engage in competition can explain in part why women are not breaking through the glass ceiling.”

Differences are apparent early in life: “If you look at boys, the majority of them are actively involved in playing competitive games, whereas girls — not all girls — tend to select activities where there’s not a clear winner and not a clear endpoint.” These differences tend to increase through puberty and into adulthood, she said, noting that men are much more likely to describe themselves as being competitive.

“There could be lots of reasons why we’re seeing this: It could be that boys are better at kicking a ball and that’s why they’re doing it more. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re any more willing to engage in competition, it could just be that they’re better at it,” Vesterlund said. “We need to measure ability in order to be talking about this. We can’t just say that boys like to kick balls, therefore they are competitive.”

In the lab

Some of Vesterlund’s earlier research sought to determine whether there actually are gender-based differences in willingness to engage in competition and whether the differences arise even when it’s costly not to compete.

One experiment asked groups of four — two men and two women —to perform the task of adding five sets of two-digit numbers in a short timespan.

Initially they were given 50 cents for each correct answer; next, they competed against the others in the group with the participant who solved the most problems receiving $2 while the others got nothing.

In the third part, participants were allowed to choose which payment arrangement they wanted.

They found that men and women were equally good at solving the problems. “We saw no differences,” she said. Once researchers controlled for performance, they wanted to see if there was a difference in which type of payment participants preferred.

When participants got to choose, 73 percent of the men wanted to compete, while only 35 percent of the women opted for that payment method. Moreover, “When we looked at the people who were the very best — the top 25 percent in performance — the best-performing women were [entering the competition] about one-third of the time, which is less than the worst-performing men,” she said.

“We have these high-performing women who should be winning the competitions,” she said. “If we’re thinking about who is it that we want to run countries and companies, we want the best people. … We need to get these best-performing women to get into the competition.”

Why the gap?

“Part of the reason that we’re seeing this very large gender gap in willingness to compete is coming from the fact that men are just a lot more overconfident than women,” Vesterlund said. “It’s not that women are underconfident — It’s just that they’re not as overconfident as the men.”

When the research participants were asked where they thought they ranked among their group of four, three out of four men thought they were the best, even though, given that men and women were equally good, a man only had a one-in-four chance of actually being the best in his group.

Vesterlund found that of those who thought they were the best, only about 50 percent of the women chose to compete for the money. In contrast, 90 percent of the men who thought they were best chose that payment system.

“The bottom line is, despite having this group of people with equal abilities, we end up seeing very few of these high-performing women actually winning the competition,” she said.

“It’s not beliefs. It’s not just that men are more overconfident,” she said. “It’s also coming from what we believe is a difference in gender attitudes toward competition.”

Translated for the real world: “We want to get the best people to come up through the ranks,” Vesterlund said, noting that many large firms have diversity officers whose job, in part, is to get high-performing women to climb the corporate ladder.

“Why should we make these women who don’t want to compete go into the competition? We shouldn’t make them do something they don’t want to do, but can we come up with a way of encouraging them to compete?” she said.

Possible solutions

“It’s clear that a lot of these problems in willingness to compete is coming through the fact that there’s a very large gap in confidence” that shows up in attitudes toward competition, she said.

Currently, the way people rise to the top in the workplace is through tournament-style competition, in which the winner advances. “It’s not clear that has to be the way to move up through the ranks,” she said.

Possible solutions, Vesterlund said, include affirmative action — for instance, there are two winners but one must be female. “This gets women to compete because now they’re competing against other women,” she said. “Women actually think they’re pretty good compared to other women.”

Another solution is to have people compete as part of a group. This works well, in part, because women are less confident, she said. For women, “Being paired with someone you think is better is a pretty good deal.” However, men stop competing in that scenario “because they think that they’re so awesome that they don’t want to compete with somebody else,” Vesterlund said.

Offering feedback on performance is another solution. “What if we just told people, ‘This is how good you are.’ When we thought someone should be promoted, we tell them: ‘You’re really good; you should put in your application,’”she suggested.

“It turns out that offering feedback on performance is extremely effective: You get the right men and women to enter the competition.”

New research

Other gender differences Vesterlund has been examining include whether women agree more often to do favors and whether women have a harder time turning down requests to take on tasks that won’t advance their careers.

Other researchers’ inquiry into why female engineering students drop out of the field has found that the women report they aren’t confident that they will succeed and that they dislike the competitive pressure in the engineering field.

Vesterlund said that a recent survey of female engineering students at MIT and three other schools found that there are other reasons as well. “One of the things that women repeatedly noted was that it seemed like they were given tasks that weren’t exactly the kind of tasks that they thought they would be given while they were studying to be engineers. They were often given ‘female’ roles of note-taker, organizer or manager.”

Some of her own research has sprung from a “no” club she joined: a support group of similarly overextended women.

“We were all saying yes to far too many things,” she said — too many refereeing requests, appointments to committees, invitations to trips that weren’t necessarily helpful to their work.

Vesterlund admitted that men likely feel every bit as overcommitted as women do, but she wondered whether there are gender differences in these tendencies as well.

She did an unscientific analysis of two requests she received recently: one to assist in reviewing small-grant proposals in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences; the other to volunteer as a door guard during final exams at Benedum Hall or Chevron Science Center.

In the case of the request to be a reviewer, she noted that 12 full professors were among the proposal reviewers. Vesterlund said that women make up 24 percent of the full professors in arts and sciences; therefore if the reviewers reflected the faculty, the number of female reviewers should be about 24 percent as well. Instead, more than half of the full professors reviewing these proposals were women.

In the case of the request for door guard volunteers, she noted that both of the buildings’ home departments have a small percentage of female faculty: Benedum Hall houses the engineering school,  where 13.5 percent of the faculty are women; Chevron Science Center houses the chemistry department, where women make up 18 percent of the faculty.

Based on her observations, she said that although the bulk of faculty volunteers came from the buildings’ home departments, about one-third of the faculty volunteers at Benedum Hall were women, while two-thirds of those at Chevron were women.

“This is just an indication there might be something to this,” noting that it’s important to do laboratory studies under controlled conditions, since it can’t be known who was asked and who received the requests in her anecdotal examples.

Another area she is interested in is favors. Do women agree to do favors more, or are they asked more? Vesterlund is doing focus group studies, establishing both typical focus groups and “no” clubs to delve into that issue.

Vesterlund said she also is launching a diary study. “We initially had contacted a very large corporation that was very excited about doing some research,” she said. “When they realized what this study would be about, they said that they couldn’t engage in the study because they were fully aware that women probably were taking on too many favors and too many tasks and if they started paying attention to that it could be too costly to the bottom line,” she said.

“Maybe it is the women who are bringing the bagels and doing the tasks that are not necessarily leading to promotions,” she quipped.

In a survey of 47 first-year MBA students, she asked participants to think about a time in a previous job when they had accepted a request that was outside their job description but they really had wanted to decline.

When asked why they said yes, Vesterlund said that the women were more likely to note they felt worn down and that they worried about what would happen if they said no. “They felt pressured, they felt it was difficult to say no and they were worried that somebody would think they were not helpful,” she said, adding that while both men and women are overcommitted, women are more likely to say they agree to do too many things at work.

In the lab, she set up an experiment in which one person’s actions would benefit the group, but would benefit other members more than themselves.

Participants were divided into anonymous groups of three for a 10-round game and were matched with new people for each round.

In every round they had two minutes to decide whether or not to invest in a group account. Only one person in the group could invest and once one person did so, the round ended. In the game the three members each got $1 if no one stepped up to invest, but if someone invested, that person got $1.25 while the other two members each received $2.

While it’s clear that everyone benefited when someone invested, women invested more often — 35 percent of the time compared to 20 percent of the time for men. “Throughout this game, women were just much more likely to click the button to invest.” They also did so at a higher frequency: Over 10 rounds, it was most common for men to invest once and the median for men was two times. In contrast, some women invested in nine out of 10 rounds and most invested four or five times, Vesterlund said.

“The gain for being in a group where someone invests without you doing it is really high. It may be that the women get the job done, but the guys are leaving the room with a lot more money,” she found.

Study participants also were asked about personal traits, which found no significant gender-based differences in their tendency toward altruism or agreeability, but found that men tend to be more risk-seeking while women were slightly more conforming.

Those differences could fuel additional research, she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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