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Sex and the C-Level


By Cynthia O'Malley

PITTSBURGH--In Corporate America, balanced representation of women in leadership (with significant authority and the compensation that goes with it) remains an elusive goal.

The reasons for the glass ceiling have been researched extensively. And yet, although the sacrifices are understood, the business world has not been successful in capitalizing on the proven advantages of equal gender representation on corporate boards.

Let’s take a look at the disparity in gender and career choice, to better understand what can be done to remove the constraints on women that keep them from meaningful leadership roles.

© / michaeljung

The top rungs of the corporate ladder in the United States still have relatively little room for 52 percent of the population.

Due to the magnitude of constraints, I will address gender biases in leadership opportunities here and additional constraints in future blogs.

All in the Family

Gender biases based on family or reproductive choices are still clearly felt in career decisions.

Much higher percentages of highly credentialed women than men perceive serious problems in reconciling work and family obligations, and much higher percentages of women remain childless.

A recent U.S. poll of Fortune 500 senior executives found that 27 percent of the women, compared with just 3 percent of the men, had no children.[i] In other words, women who opt in to demanding professional positions are more likely to opt out of demanding family obligations.

Why are women making different choices than their male counterparts? Perhaps because of the tremendous disparity in acceptance and resources accorded to working mothers vs. working fathers.

How common is it for men to struggle with this choice?

Who's Minding the Kids?

Although the disparity in social norms is obvious, I am always astounded that some men argue otherwise, apparently due to insecurities of losing their coveted place in a male-biased hierarchal business structure.

© / shaunl

A common crossroads for women professionals is seldom a question for their male counterparts.

The career ramifications of the choice whether to have children should not be gender specific. Reproductive choices are personal choices that result in responsibilities that should not be gender labeled.

Men and women can both choose to have a family and/or choose a career path. Why is this labeled a “different choice” when the decision of family, as it relates to a career, is made by a women versus a man?

The implication is that a man does not have a “reproductive” decision to make relative to his career path.

Barriers to Success

Women are aspiring to leadership on the same terms as men.

And women have made the same choices, and the same investments of time and education, but they confront an additional set of obstacles.

Removing these barriers likely requires corporate policies that support gender-neutral family choices, including the responsibilities associated with raising a family while pursuing a career.

Leadership Style

One of the most difficult obstacles for women seeking positions of influence is the misidentification of the qualities typically associated with women and leadership.

© / PeopleImages

Many women have made the same choices, and invested the same time and education, as men but confront an additional layer of obstacles on their career path.

An overview of more than 100 studies confirms that women are rated lower as leaders when they adopt authoritative styles—particularly when the evaluators are men, or when the position at issue is typically occupied by men.[ii]

Yet research also indicates that individuals with authoritative styles are more likely to emerge as leaders and to be recognized as having effective decision-making abilities.

The result: Women face tradeoffs that men do not. Female executives can be perceived as having a positive demeanor but are not respected, or respected but lacking a positive demeanor, in settings that require both qualities.

These unconscious biases are, of course, based in part on social stereotypes.

Channeling Women

Since these stereotypes operate at unconscious levels, and since selections for executive leadership positions involve subjective and confidential judgments, the extent of bias is hard to assess.

CEOs and executive managers generally see women as more suited for jobs involving human relations than those involving line responsibilities for profits and losses.

And yet, when those assumptions are challenged, success follows.

© / Reptile 8488

Men and women can both choose to have a family and/or a career. Why is this labeled a “different choice” when the decision is made by a woman versus a man?

Women executives perform better than their male counterparts as measured by financial performance and growth rates of those organizations. According to USA Today, the average stock price performance of eight Fortune 500 companies run by female CEOs significantly exceeded that of the S&P 500 index.

Making It Happen

What will change the look of the board table?

A necessary first step is commitment from the top. An organization’s leadership team needs to acknowledge the importance of gender equity, to assess and track progress in achieving objectives, and to hold management at every level accountable for improvement.

The best evidence available suggests that acknowledging inherent biases and implementing the change necessary to counteract them is the most effective strategy for increasing women’s access to senior positions.

In other words, change begins with the admission by current leadership that inherent biases exist. Ignoring them will continue to constrain business growth and financial performance.


[i].Catalyst, Women and Men in United States Corporations, 3.

[ii].D. Anthony Butterfield and James P. Grinnell, Reviewing Gender Leadership, and Managerial Behavior: Do The Decades of Research Tell Us Anything?, in Gary N. Powell, Handbook of Gender and Work (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1998):223, 235; Alice H. Eagly, Mona G. Makhijani, & Bruce G. Klonsky, Gender and The Evaluation of Leaders, Psychological Bulletin, 111 (1992), 17; Jeanette N. Cleveland, Margaret Stockdale, & Kevin R. Murphy, Women and Men in Organizations: Sex and Gender Issues at Work (2000): 106, 107; Rochelle Sharpe, New Studies Find that Female Managers Outshine Their Male Counterparts in Almost Every Measure, Businessweek Online, Nov. 20, 2000, http/



Cynthia O'Malley

Cindy O’Malley is the manager of consulting and laboratory services at KTA-Tator Inc. and Co-Chair of SSPC’s Women in Coatings Program. During her 19 years with KTA, Cindy has been active in several industry organizations. She is an SSPC Certified Protective Coatings Specialist, a member of ASTM International, and the current president of the Pittsburgh Society for Coatings Technology (PSCT). Her industry honors include SSPC’s 2013 Presidents’ Lecture Series Award. Contact Cindy.



Tagged categories: Cynthia L. O'Malley; KTA-Tator; Program/Project Management; Protective Coating Specialist (PCS); SSPC; North America; Personnel

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