What Keeps Women From Moving Up the Ladder? Not “experience”, but corporate laziness

by cv harquail on February 24, 2010

This just in from Forbes Magazine — yet another article about why “women” don’t get promoted. (hat tip to my friend @ShaunRSmith)

Orit Gadiesh and Julie Coffman, in Why Women Don’t Make It Up The Ladder summarize several of the arguments that are advanced to explain why so few women, relative to men, get promoted up the management hierarchy. They conclude:

The mechanism for getting women into leadership positions is flawed.

ladder bahhumbugThe mechanism is flawed. So are the explanations that people give for why the percentage of women in managerial jobs goes from 50% to 3% from entry level manager to CEO.

Explanations or Excuses?

People have great difficulty separating explanations from excuses. Explanations tell us what is happening. Excuses tell us what people want us to believe is happening.

Here’s one “explanation”

“The reality is that in any group of equally competent and talented men and women of the same tenure, women who have taken time off or worked part-time for family reasons lack equal experience, by definition. That matters a lot when they are considered for promotion. Result: Men usually get the job.”

This is ‘explanation’ for women’s absence in top management is, quite frankly, crap.

It’s crap for two reasons–

1. This explanation suggests that employers are basically unable to determine who is better for a promotion based on job-specific criteria. Supposedly, they can’t tell the difference between “equally competent and talented men and women.”

Really? Are they just not paying attention? Or just not looking?

Perhaps organizations are unable to tell the difference simply because they are too lazy, too unskilled, or simply unwilling to make the effort to distinguish carefully between candidates.

If you think I’m crazy to suggest that employers are too lazy to make the effort to distinguish between candidates, consider this:

Study after study shows that interviews are basically useless when it comes to determining whether a person is well-qualified for a particular job. However, employers keep relying on interviews for their primary data about candidates’ ability. Why? Because it takes too much effort to identify exactly what skills are really needed for a job, and too much effort to figure out how to evaluate a person’s grasp of these skills.

This is especially true for middle and upper management jobs, which tend to be idiosyncratic enough that clear “HR” criteria are rarely already available to guide evaluations.

2. This explanation suggests that “dwell time” in a job, or a career, is an appropriate tie breaker between two otherwise “equally competent and talented candidates“. Supposedly, the amount of time you’ve spent in a job or at a company is a direct measure of ‘experience’.

Really? Does more ‘time in rank’ really mean more learning?

Perhaps organizations are just unwilling to examine if time really matters, and if it does, just what amount of time matters.

How does time matter, really?   Does ‘time in full-time job” really equal ‘experience’, and does ‘experience’ really equal ‘learning’?


Especially, all other criteria being equal, a difference in the amount of full time work experience would show us the opposite of how that time difference is currently being used. If two people are equally qualified, and one took 10 years to qualify while the other took 7 years, who then is the ‘better’ candidate?

Does “time” really matter?

If time were an important criterion for promoting one of two otherwise equal candidates, why don’t we use age to decide who should get promoted?

An older candidate would have more experience, right? But would we ever promote one candidate over another similarly qualified candidate because he or she has more time on this earth and thus more ‘experience’?

pool clock cropped

I don’t think so.

So then, let’s ask: How many years’ difference really makes a difference?

Just how much of a difference in years of experience really makes a difference when it comes to someone’s ability to do the next level of a job?

Is a 2 year difference between two 35 yrs olds enough? Or a 4 year difference between two 40 year olds? Or a 6 year difference between two 50 year olds?

Because, when you think about it, the amount of time the average managerial mom is out of the workforce is not huge.

Just how many years does your average managerial mom ‘take off’ entirely if she has kids? Maybe an average of 6 years? How about those moms who go part-time for a while? What’s the average mommy-track stint? (Maybe, let’s be generous here, it’s all of 8 years? That translates into 4 years less ‘experience’.)

Is that enough to disqualify this mom from being promoted? Or from being considered for higher level work?

We should also ask, how long should this time difference matter? How many times does this time difference get used as decision criteria? Isn’t it possible that, at some point, a candidate demonstrates that regardless of the number of years she’s been a VP, that she has now demonstrated the ability to be promoted to EVP?

I’m thinking that this whole ‘explanation’ of time and ‘experience’ as the tie-breaker is not an ‘explanation’ but rather an excuse.

— Maybe, instead, organizations are unwilling to do the work it takes to distinguish among candidates.

— Maybe organizations are unwilling to put the effort into exploring just what difference 2, 4 or 6 years actually makes in a person’s ability to be promoted, and for how long that difference should matter.

— Maybe organizations should make more of an effort to understand what really matters to doing the next job well.

Perhaps we should stop talking about why ‘women’ don’t move up the ladder, and start focusing on why organizations won’t promote women.

What do you think?

For another view, see:
Pushing Ourselves to the Top of the Corporate Ladder at TheMamaBee.
Photo credits:
Old Ladder by Bahhumbug on Flicker
SwimmingPoolClock by TimmSuess on Flickr


Bruce Lynn February 26, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Your killer point is the ‘Does Time Really Matter?’ question. I do think the ‘strongest’ justifcation of passing over women is ‘time lost to raising family’, but I think you are right in estimating that women who get passed over often have as much if not more total experience ‘time’ as the other men chosen. I think this perspective is ripe with opportunities for academic study and objective analysis which will support your hypothesis.

I think one argument that you neglect to address is the ‘Commitment’ argument. Basically, companies want executives who are going to live, breathe, eat everything to do with the company. They want executive who will sacrifice everything for the sake of the company. They want executives who think about nothing besides the company. If this is truly what they want, then fearing that women wo ar willing to take extended time off to raise a family are likely demonstrate less ‘company devotion’ than men who don’t is a reasonable conjecture. Whether it makes business sense for them to want this die-hard devotion is another matter and perhaps the weakness to this argument.

Unfortunately, you ruin a sound argument with bitter snide tone of the first half. Name calling (‘lazy’ , ‘crap’) is not a way to assert authority. Maybe it is more amusing to those readers who agree with you, but tends to put off the ‘swing’ vote undecideds. The ‘swing’ vote is the critical constituency in any political issue. No point in winning over the people who agree with you…they are already there. No point in arguing with the stalwarts who disagree…they are not even listening. The focus of good thinking is to get more undecideds on your side.
.-= Bruce Lynn´s last blog ..Darwin and Adaptability (Mullins Part 2) =-.

Christine Livingston February 26, 2010 at 2:42 pm

On the face of it, I get the point about women who’ve been out of the workforce lacking equal experience to men. It has a logic about it, but it’s a smelly kind of logic, in my mind masking some more emotive stuff.

First, I think organisations find it easier to promote men into the very senior positions. Let’s face it, it’s primarily men who “live” there and there’s a safety about hiring another man.

I also think there’s a lot of “keeping men sweet” that goes on. You can just hear, when the EVP vacancy comes up and the candidates are a couple of men who, in their opinion have sweated it out for years, and a woman who has been on several rounds of maternity leave, at least one of the guys feel he deserves the job ahead of his female counterpart simply because in his opinion he has been more “loyal”. And which of his seniors is going to dissuade him of that?

Thirdly, appointing women into very senior roles means big change for a lot of businesses. The dynamics of having more of a male/female mix are different for a start, let alone anything else. And, as far as I can see, although a lot of big businesses say they want change, really they don’t. It means a loss of control.

Thanks for the provocative post!

cv harquail February 26, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Christine — Thanks so much for your comment!

I especially appreciate this line :

“I get the point about women who’ve been out of the workforce lacking equal experience to men. It has a logic about it, but it’s a smelly kind of logic, in my mind masking some more emotive stuff.”

That captures well the issue I want to raise, (but perhaps in a way that folks like Bruce might find more palatable).

Almost every explanation/excuse remaining has some validity to it– sure, time does matter, in some ways. But each of these explanations/excuses hides a small bit of rotten. At this point, we’ve knocked out so many of the big obvious “explanations”, we have to interrogate the ones that look logical on their face but that hide the dynamics that keep sexism (racism, classism etc.) alive.

In statistics we love a variable that has a high Rsquared– it explains ‘a lot’ of variance. But sometimes variables have a low R2 — they only explain 2% of whats going on, but you can tell from their significance level that they are real. The time argument hides real explanations for gender diffs in promotions.

Thanks for engaging the argument and establishing the clear takeaway.

Bill February 26, 2010 at 6:03 pm

You make some very good points and tell it how you feel it. There’s too litlle of that in this sanitised world.

An interesting question I heard once was, “Does this person really have ten years’ experience, or one years’ experience ten times?”
.-= Bill´s last blog ..The “Horse” Caption =-.

cv February 27, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Hi Bill — that’s a great line…it captures exactly the question of who or whether time = experience. Now we need one like it to fucus on ‘how much of a time difference actually matters”. Any ideas?
thanks so much-cv.
.-= cv´s last blog ..What Keeps Women From Moving Up the Ladder? Not “experience”, but corporate laziness =-.

Kelly March 1, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Although the notion of companies being “results oriented” is kind of a buzz phrase, it’s rarely put into practice, particularly in this type of situation.

One example I’ve experienced is at one job, I used to leave work ‘on time’ every day. A guy in my department used to stay late pretty much everyday. Our boss would sort of make passive aggressive comments about the difference… insinuating that I didn’t work as hard.

However in reality, I was getting more done and accomplishing more in my 40 hour work week than he was in his maybe 60 hour week. I measured my results meticulously and achieved and often exceeded all goals/objectives put at me. To me that should be recognized, and in my mind that’s more valuable to a company than someone working round the clock and not achieving/exceeding goals. I’d say that he or she is inefficient.

My personal lesson learned is just to not work for companies that think that way and I’ve been much better off since. However, I think it’s quite common and women (particularly with families) will likely always be at a disadvantage in that environment.
.-= Kelly´s last blog ..Foursquare: Is it really a game changer? =-.

Bruce Lynn March 2, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Just came across a great illustration of the extreme devotion some companies are looking for in a Faustian sort of pact – http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2010/04/lehman-wives-201004. Taking time off for family or anything else is seen as a violation of the 100% devotion to company. Not all companies are as extreme at Lehman Bros illustrated here, but the spirit is the same and has the same debilitating impact on women (or men) who dare to tread this life path of sharing attentions with something other than ‘the busines’.

Julia R March 11, 2010 at 4:29 am

You make a lot of great points, and it really is shocking how sharply female leadership drops off as we look further up the ranks.

I was wondering about a concept I’d love to get your thoughts on –
In my organizational psychology course we discussed the PwC v Hopkins case where Ann Hopkins – a strong and qualified employee was denied partnership. She had been evaluated as being an outstanding employee, was “virtually at the partner level,” and had brought in significant revenue for the firm. Nonetheless, there was a lot criticism surrounding her personality traits and being too “macho.” One coworker stated that in order to improve her chances for partnership, Ann should “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.”

It seems that in her case there was a mismatch between her expected gender role and her leadership approach. Yet, stereotypical female traits are not viewed as leadership qualities in our society.

What do you make of this? People feel uncomfortable when societal norms are breached, so would you agree that women who aspire to climb the ladder should find a happy medium between being assertive and aggressive (leadership qualities) and being traditionally feminine?

Julia R

Link to the case:

Mari C March 19, 2010 at 12:56 pm

A Forbes article in January states that women business owners, compared to men business owners, are more focused on “Creating a positive working environment for all, Creating opportunities for other people, Giving employees reasons to feel better as part of the team, Paying employees better, and Providing better health care for employees.” The underlying statement here is that women are not finding these environments in the male dominated management teams. I believe some women are “self opting out” of participating in the management team (in conscience or subconscience ways) rather than engaging in a negative environment.


Richard April 21, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Having read your very well researched and argued blog post I would have to say I’m in agreement that business’s can be lazy with attitudes and recruitment processes. I for example work in the digital industry which is very new so someone who happens to have been in work environment may not automatically be better and an interview does not provide all the answers. Seems like there needs to be some HR shake ups.

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