Women now make up nearly 60% of college graduates in the US, as well as more than 50% of graduate school classes in many traditionally male fields, including law and medicine. Yet despite these gains, equality has not been reached in business, especially at the most senior levels.
As the only female leading a top 10 business school, I find this troubling. Further, past data predicts that at least 50% of the women graduating from top MBA programs in 2017 will exit the full-time US workforce within 10 years of graduating—either because they choose to step out or are “forced out.” This trend does not portend well for future progress.
If you believe, as I do, that getting more women to the “C-suite” and the board table is important, then we need more insight. First, we need to gain a greater understanding of why high-potential women do not choose to enter business at the same rates as their male peers. Second, for those who do choose to enter, we need to understand why these professional women exit at greater rates than do professional men. With this insight in hand, we can create new programs and pathways for supporting women across all phases of their careers.
While there is no silver bullet, a growing body of evidence suggests that there are three key decision points, or “pivot points,” where women face issues that are unique biologically and culturally. These pivot points introduce predictable stressors into adult women’s lives and mean that, on average, high-potential women experience career choices, goals, and trade-offs differently than do high-potential men with similar education and experience. The three pivot points are outlined below.
If we can find new and better ways to support women through these pivot points, we can increase the flow into the senior executive ranks. Conversely, if we continue to overlook, or only partially address, the unique needs of high-potential women, large portions of this great talent pool will never get near the C-suite.
1. The Launch (starting your career well in your 20s and early 30s)
Right from the start of their careers, today’s female college graduates earn less than their male peers, according to research. This is true even at the most elite schools like Northwestern, Princeton, and Harvard. Data from these institutions shows that, upon graduation from college, women start out earning on average about 80% of what their male peers do. If we can’t achieve parity at the start of these women’s careers, how can we hope to achieve greater parity in the later stages?
One concern is that women graduating from college are less likely to feel qualified or motivated to apply for the most prestigious entry-level business jobs. A broad class of entry-level positions at consulting firms, investment banks, and certain Fortune 500 companies offer upward mobility for leaders across all sectors. But if women are not taking these jobs in equal numbers to men, even for a couple of years at the beginning of their careers, they are not gaining the benefit of these early career accelerators.
At least three factors appear to be driving this early disparity. First, young women tend to hold more negative stereotypes about working in business than do young men. Second, women are still less likely to study mathematics, business, and economics in college. Finally, young women still encounter relatively few female role models who can demonstrate why working in business is a meaningful life choice.
A further manifestation of these gaps and misperceptions is the fact that business schools are the only professional graduate schools that still receive less than 50% of their applications from women. (Among the top 25–50 schools, the applicant pool is about one-third female.) This is true even though an MBA requires the least amount of time to complete, relative to other professional schools, and can offer the highest potential for upper mobility in earnings, especially for graduates of the most elite schools. Further, it has the most career flexibility: It can provide important grounding for careers in business, government, or the not-for-profit sector.
The key insight here is that many capable women are opting out of business in their 20s and 30s. Clearly, if we have any hope of getting more women headed for the C-suite and board table, we need to change young women’s attitudes toward business. We also need to change the dialogue among young women, especially those at our top colleges and graduate schools, about how to use their career launch years in a way that maximizes their chances for long-term career success.
2. The Mid-career Marathon (sustaining focus in your mid-30s and 40s)
The second critical pivot point occurs when women move into the mid-career years where long-term relationships and caregiving roles become focal. For women who have launched well, the demands at work are growing just as the ones at home are. And while ambitious men face the same shift, research finds that in the US—whether by choice, necessity, or default—women typically pick up more of the burden for meeting their families’ growing non-work needs during this phase.
Nor do things get easier as the mid-career years progress. When aging relatives get frailer and adolescent children’s schedules get more packed, stress levels rise. At this point, many well-educated, career women—especially if paired with a well-educated, employed man—make the calculation that it’s just not worth it, economically or emotionally, to stay in the game.
The importance of this point was borne out in a 2004 study of American women who left work to have children. Although 93% of these women wanted to return to work, less than 75% managed to do so, and only 40% returned full time. Further, OECD data shows that US labor force participation by women aged 25–54 peaked at 74–75% around 2000 and now hovers at 69–70%, the level at which we were in the mid-1980s.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—nations where high quality, affordable child and elder care is the norm—all rank among the top OECD nations in female workforce participation. Part of the solution clearly lies in our ability to improve the availability, affordability, and quality of child and elder care. Part of the solution also relies on companies expanding opportunities for flexible work hours and career paths.
But part of the solution is also psychological. We need to find ways to coach high-potential women as they prepare for and navigate the Mid-career Marathon years. We need to help women know what to expect when this pivot comes. And as the mid-career years accelerate, we need resources ready and easy to find when working women hit major stressors, such as a child or parent getting very sick or a nanny situation going south. We need to help these women invest in building and sustaining professional networks and friendships among fellow career women. The Mid-career Marathon is not the time to be flying solo, but too often women in this phase feel that they have no choice.
Finally, there are critical developmental needs shared by all high-potential professionals during this phase. This is a period when both men and women can lose career focus. They make imperfect choices about what skills to build, what development opportunities to seek, and when to push on compensation. These choices can sidetrack a promising career. But for women there is always an added factor: the implicit and explicit bias so often present at work (in ways that many men still don’t see) just makes everything more tiring.
Research shows that this is the time when effective mentorship and sponsorship are critical, and a lack of good guidance increases the likelihood of a career exit for women. But research continues to find that women in this phase are less likely than male peers to ask for help and pursue new opportunities. Perhaps as a result, they are also less likely than men to find and be supported by strong sponsors.
3. The Executive Transition (taking up the senior-leadership mantle in your late 40s, 50s, and beyond)
For women who have made it through the Launch and Mid-career Marathon successfully, the final pivot point comes in the shift from running a piece of an organization to leading the whole. In the corporate world, this is what happens in the transition from a functional or geographic vice president to the C-suite.
Being in the C-suite means broader scope, more responsibility, more meetings, more travel, and yes, more politics. All of this translates into more time spent working and more time spent thinking about work as one navigates increasingly complex jobs, in more nuanced circles. The women who have survived up to this point have developed rich professional networks and support mechanisms. But even many of these women never make it past this hurdle—either by chance or choice.
The women who fall off by chance are the ones who get looked over (and over) when it comes to filling the C-suite jobs. Internally, people assess that there is “something missing in her” when decisions are made, and externally, no realistic alternative materializes that offers an opportunity for higher impact in a new organization. After a few months or years of sitting in C-suite limbo, these women either decide, or someone decides for them, that it is time to step out.
And the women who opt out by choice, who are still considered “players” by the C-suite, do so because the potential benefit of the higher climb no longer seems worth the cost. Research finds that, in contrast to peer men, many women at this stage are not as motivated by achieving more money or a bigger title. Anecdotal evidence from talking with dozens of women who have exited at this stage highlights two factors: the temporal cost and the mental cost. The demands for face time and certain kinds of cultural interaction feel less rewarding relative to the monetary awards that might come with them. After making it so far, it can feel “ridiculous” to have to keep spending one’s time in ways that do not create real value or impact, only the illusion of it. Further, this is the phase when, after years of confronting both explicit and implicit bias, the subtle messages and slights can become particularly galling.
The women who make it this far in Corporate America have earned good money and likely saved a fair amount. Each time something annoying happens at work, they do a mental calculation. How much longer do I put up with this? I have heard numerous women who have opted out in their early 50s relate some version of the following: “I’ve hit my number. I’m out. I’m going to sit on boards and start spending my time in ways that are more meaningful to me personally.” So they choose not to raise their hands for bigger jobs or even refuse to take a bigger role when it is offered.
Note that men, too, must navigate this transition, but it seems that fewer men turn down a run at a bigger job. They also are less likely, especially if caucasian, to be overlooked due to implicit bias. And we hypothesize that men of the same capabilities tend to set a higher “number.”
For women who have made it this far, moving past this pivot requires a combination of motivation and opportunity. As a result, this pivot point is more nuanced to address. One obvious answer is to continue to push boards to hold CEOs accountable for annual strategic talent reviews—a key aspect of best practices in succession planning. This review should include a deep dive on executives of diverse backgrounds, including women, and not just at one level below the C-suite, but two to three levels down as well. In addition, as part of this review, boards should require and track statistics documenting high-potential departures by gender and other key categories over time.
If a board is really serious about the diversity of its C-suite, whenever a high-potential woman or minority departs, board members can require an exit interview and detailed postmortem. Senior executives, even board members, could perform the exit interviews. The key point is to not delegate the task to HR; that knowledge is needed at the highest levels.
We also need more forward-thinking firms willing to adopt systems, processes, and standards that ensure that every executive with C-suite potential gets focused coaching, career development, and C-suite and board attention. Keeping women in the game to the highest levels means beating the odds. It will take both more attention and deeper intention for us to succeed.
The Bottom Line
At the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where I am Dean, we have a long history of launching strong women into the C-suite. This includes the first female CEOs of some of the world’s largest corporations, as well as the first female chair at the NAACP. In 2010, Kellogg was the first top 10 business school globally to appoint a female dean and is currently the only one in the Financial Times top 25 led by a woman. Arguably, Kellogg has been the “lead investor” among its peers in promoting the development of female leaders.
As a lead investor, we care deeply about seeing more progress. We believe that getting more women to the highest levels of business is important for our organizations, our economy, and our country. Further, we want to see more women achieving their highest potential. We want more women to experience the meaning and impact that can come with a sustained career trajectory.
The challenges that professional women face are different from those faced by professional men. Our hypothesis is that if we can find new and better ways to support women through the three critical career pivot points, where these differences come to the fore, we can increase the number of women filling the pipeline to the C-suite.
Our thoughts are still forming. They need more discussion, more debate, more development.
But if we can get 25% more women to apply to business school; if we can get 25% more women to take business jobs early on; if we can get 25% more women to stay in the full-time work force during the mid-career years; if we can surround our strongest senior women with the support they need to reach for the biggest jobs, we could finally begin to realize our full potential as a society that espouses equal rights for all.