Motherhood and the Top Jobs

Here we are, well into the post-millennium world and study after study shows that women are still under represented in senior management, in the boardroom and are a rarity in the corner CEO office. As Ann Golden, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Conference Board of Canada, wrote in a report late last summer, there is a lot of media hoopla around women CEOs which leads people to mistakenly believe that we have achieved some kind of level of parity.

Nothing could be further from the truth and Golden’s report goes on to say that Canadian women make up 48 percent of the workforce, but only 26,000 of those 8 million women hold senior management positions. When it comes to Canada’s male workforce, about 56,000 men hold senior management positions – in other words, it’s a two to one situation.

Additionally, Golden points out that lower level management jobs, which are the “feeder pool for future executives,” are held by men 1.5 times more than women. They are better positioned for advancement, which may be the reason that most top companies in Canada do not have a single solitary woman at the board level.

When Golden’s report was released, it took a bit of whoopin’ from influential Globe and Mail columnist, Margaret Wente. There are barriers, Wente wrote, but went on the say, “the overwhelming reason for the relatively small number of women in senior management is that women – especially with children — simply choose not to be there.”

Then, on Jian Ghomeshi’s CBC Radio Show, Q, Dutch economist, Heleen Mees, and workplace management expert, Penny de Valk, got into a battle royal over the reasons women aren’t showing up in leadership roles. Mees argued that too many women give priority to motherhood and deal themselves out of the game while de Valk said it was because employers were not flexible to the needs of working mothers.

Legions of women, in record numbers, are graduating from university – female lawyers, doctors, MBAs, chartered accountants, and the reason they don’t access the top jobs is because they prefer to forget everything they worked for and stay home? Is this true?

Ilene H. Lang, the president of Catalyst, a non-profit research group established in 1962 to help women get into the workforce, describes this “mummy track” debate over the reasons for the women missing from top jobs as a “cottage industry.”

If you asked my two daughters and my husband, they would tell you they are glad I had a job – otherwise, I would have been bouncing off the walls at home and making the whole house miserable. I am definitely engineered for an outside career. It works for me. Some women may, of course, prefer to be full-time moms and there is not a single thing wrong with that. I take exception to those who say one is acceptable and the other is not. It is very individual and everybody should do what works for them.

My issue is with the system which impedes women who want to get to the top from doing so. Among the Fortune 500 companies, only 3 percent have a woman at the helm. Globally, only about 15 companies had a woman at the top. So, 4 billion women on the planet and only 1 out of 6 climb to the top. It isn’t motherhood holding women back – there is a built-in bias in the hiring and advancement process.

To throw the motherhood excuse out the window, Catalyst studied men and women with equal ambition and no children. They found that those critical first jobs, which put you on track to the corner office, were awarded to the men. The women are sent down a different path completely so it’s not surprising that they get discouraged and leave.

Another element goes into the mix – women get tired of being the outsider. This was reinforced when I addressed a national conference of women engineers last year. In addition to my keynote, the conference organizers asked me to present my “Six Steps to Effortless Energy” at a breakout session.

Initially, I was concerned that the content might be too soft and fluffy for what I assumed to be very left-brain, conceptual thinkers. But they loved it and participated with glee when doing some of my “throw caution to the wind” and celebrate your feminine energy exercises. I could only conclude that they are women first but buried it well below the surface to fit in to their male-dominated environments.

William D. Hamilton, an Oxford evolutionary scientist, said that there are ‘people people and things people.’ And, recent research from professors at the universities of Cambridge and Simon Fraser overwhelmingly shows that ‘people people’ are women and ‘things people’ are men.

Women go to work each day representing a different value-system. They are often alone in presenting their case and are doing it from a weaker position (as men have the jobs that will advance to be CEO). It is tough swimming against the current – eventually they get weary and leave. It isn’t easy to balance work and family and the environment does nothing to encourage them to stay.

So maybe it isn’t really the ‘baby’ factor – maybe it’s just plain disheartening to be given fewer opportunities and to always feel like the outsider. It is like playing Monopoly and only getting a chance to roll every other time. When you “just can’t win,” eventually you lose enthusiasm, pick up your chips and go home to play a different game.