by Catalyst

Just give it time. Not yet, but soon. When women get the right education, training, work experience, and aspirations to succeed at the highest levels of business, then we’ll see parity.

So go the refrains justifying why more women aren’t well represented at the helm of global companies, in boardrooms, and in C-suites. The premise of the promise is that the pipeline for women into senior leadership is robust. After all, over the past 15 years, women have been graduating with advanced professional degrees in record numbers often equal to or even surpassing the rates for men, swelling women’s representation in managerial ranks. Concurrently, companies implemented diversity and inclusion programs to eliminate structural biases and foster women’s full participation in leadership.

Given these accomplishments, who would question whether the pipeline for women to senior leadership is lacking? While women represent just 2.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs, 15% of board directors at those companies, and less than 14% of corporate executives at top publicly traded companies around the world, overall they represent 40% of global workforces, with growth in some parts of the world projected to reach double digits. Surely, with this vigorous pipeline and the competitive focus on talent, women are poised to make rapid gains to the top. If only that were true.

In The Promise of Future Leadership: A Research Program on Highly Talented Employees in the Pipeline, Catalyst set out to explore how the “best and the brightest” – high potential women and men MBAs from whom much was expected – have fared post-MBA. Companies pinned hopes on these highly trained graduates from elite MBA programs to help navigate through the global economy. One would expect these women and men with the same prestigious credentials to be on equal footing in the pipeline and their career trajectories gender-blind.

What emerged, however, is evidence that the pipeline, for women, is not as promising as expected. Among this highly talented group, women lag men in advancement and compensation from their first professional jobs and are less satisfied with their careers overall. Furthermore, women are more likely to have left their first post-MBA job because of a difficult manager and to have paid a penalty for pursuing a nontraditional career pathway such as working in the nonprofit, government, or education sectors; being self-employed; or working part-time before returning full-time in a company or firm.

What accounts for these career outcome differences? What are the implications for companies failing to level the playing field to fully utilize this highly talented group? Below is a brief summary of the surprising results:

  • Men were more likely to start their first post-MBA job in higher positions than women.
  • Women’s first post-MBA salary was, on average, $4,600 less than men’s.
  • After starting from behind, women don’t catch up: Men were more likely to be at a higher position at the time of the survey than were women, even after taking into account total experience, time since MBA, first post-MBA job level, industry, and global region of work at the time of survey.
  • Regardless of differences in women’s and men’s starting salaries, men experienced higher salary growth post-MBA.

CEOs and other senior leaders were surprised and disappointed by the findings, and agreed that to succeed, organizations must better develop and fully leverage the highly talented women in the workforce. Now – not tomorrow, next week, or next year – is the time for renewed efforts to uncover and combat systemic gender inequity.


This Catalyst article was featured on page 12 in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Profiles in Diversity Journal