The Myth of the Level Playing Field

Why we still don’t have a woman in the White House or Chairing the Board

imagesDuring a recent speaking engagement at a well-known business school I was proudly informed by a university executive that he had recruited mainly women to his team. He clearly expected a pat on the back. I asked him how many women there were on the university executive committee – the answer was none. I was told not to worry, things were getting better and it was just a matter of time.

Because we see women running large companies and leading governments it’s easy to believe that women in positions of senior leadership is a non- issue. The playing field is now level and it’s just a matter of time before we get a balance of men and women at the top of organizations.

A level playing field is a concept about fairness. Not that every player has an equal chance to succeed, but that they all play by the same set of rules and have an equal ability to compete. In post-feminist 2010 many think that women and men have an equal ability to compete for the top jobs. If that’s the case, how come we still have so few women setting strategy and making decisions at the top of organizations?

Currently, whether it’s government, academia, non-profit or for-profit organizations, men are making most of the decisions. In North America around 85 percent of board and corporate officer positions are held by men in the top 500 companies. In the top 300 European companies, men hold around 90 percent of board director positions. The picture is little different in government and academia.

If the organizational playing field is level, why are the numbers of women in top jobs growing at a glacial rate, or not growing at all? The old arguments of not enough women in the executive pipeline, women not being genetically programmed to lead, and men being more committed and ambitious for power, no longer hold water.

Research reveals a global trend in the growing educational advantage of women achieving qualifications that should position them well for senior positions. Research also shows that men and women differ little in the traits and abilities that are most relevant to good leadership. And further,  that there is no difference between men and women being committed to their companies, and that the desire for power is equally strong between the sexes (even though men and women may manifest that power in different ways).

As to it being simply a matter of time – Catalyst, a research organization that works to ensure women’s advancement in the workplace, estimates that at the current rate of change it would take women at least another 47 years to reach parity with men as corporate officers of Fortune 500 companies. If the playing field is level, why must it take so long?

It’s true that women and men who compete for positions of senior leadership in organizations are subject to the same rules. The reason this doesn’t create a level playing field is that women do not have an equal ability to compete within these rules.

In my book, Unwritten Rules: What Women Need To Know About Leading In Today’s Organizations I talk in some depth about how the rules of senior leadership favor men and disadvantage women. I am confident that one day we will see a woman in the White House and see more women chairing boards. But not before we either change the rules to create a true level playing field or become even more skilled at recognizing the rules and succeeding within them.


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