Lack of female CEOs: Not just problem for women
How women are perceived in the workplace makes it difficult for them to become the boss; why Corporate America should be worried.
LONDON (CNNMoney.com) -- The higher women climb in Corporate America, the more difficult the ascent.
That's been the finding of research over the years that has linked the dearth of female executives in Fortune 500 companies to how women are perceived in the workplace.
The latest study to reach these findings suggests that notions of how men and women leaders should act not only makes it difficult for women to sit at the CEO's desk, but also poses a serious threat for companies.
The report from Catalyst, a New York-based organization that studies women in the workplace, suggests that the burden for changing these perceptions should be shifted away from women and to corporations themselves.
"It isn't women who need to change their leadership style, but organizations that need to mobilize and root out stereotyping," says Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst.
Over the last decade or so, companies have been making a greater push to develop mentoring and leadership programs aimed at aspiring female executives.
A number of large firms - accounting firm Deloitte & Touche is one well-known example - have aggressively embarked on not only attracting women but also retaining them and encouraging them to pursue senior leadership positions within the company, said Anne Donnellon, associate professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.
"The problem [of gender stereotyping] remains acute, although there has been progress. I do feel the glass is breaking, and plenty of women are getting through the holes," said Donnellon, who studies women and business.
While it's true that women have made headway when it comes to attaining C-suite positions, they still make up just a fraction of the CEOs of the nation's leading companies.
Just 13 Fortune 500 companies, or less than 3 percent, are headed by women, according to the latest tally of America's largest corporations. That's up slightly from 2006, when just 10 women were in the top job, but the advance is slight.
When women come into leadership positions, they discover they have limited options when it comes to their leadership behavior and that they are judged against different standards from men, said Laura Sabattini, author of the Catalyst report.
Act in accordance with female stereotypes, and women are criticized for being "too soft." Yet if they act authoritatively or aggressively, they're disparaged for "acting like a man," said Sabattini, who conducted in-depth interviews with female executives as well as used survey responses from two previous Catalyst studies for the report.
Women have been developing personal strategies for coping with this sort of gender bias since they began entering the workforce on a large scale in the 1960s and 1970s, and young women today face similar challenges.
"I think my generation is trying to address [gender stereotyping] openly in the workplace and step up to plate and fight against misconceptions," said Kristin Fleschner, national director of the Younger Women's Task Force at the National Council of Women's Organizations.
"However, that being said, they also can recognize cultural limitations in the workplace," and devise strategies for personally overcoming those challenges when openly discussing them doesn't work, she said.
Women may formulate solutions for facing gender bias, but they won't have a lasting impact without support from the workplace, according to Lang from Catalyst. And ultimately, Corporate America will suffer the most if it doesn't stamp out gender stereotypes.
"It's a competitive world out there. Companies that address the issue will win the war for talent - and it won't happen in the next quarter - but those who don't address the issue will lose out," she said.