Are Men Really Better Suited for Success Than Women?
At face value, the statistics included in the 2022 Women in the Workplace report — an annual study on the state of women in corporate America conducted by the nonprofit LeanIn.Org and consulting giant McKinsey & Company — are cause for celebration: Among U.S. companies, more women hold executive leadership roles now than at any other time in history.
Upon closer inspection, however, the statistics are more sobering: the “record-setting” number of women in C-suite positions is only 26%. While it’s undeniably progress, given that just 16% of women held similar roles in 2012, men continue to dominate the business world’s upper echelons, accounting for three out of every four senior management positions. So why, at a time when nearly 80% of Americans say they support gender equality and women are more active in the labor force than ever before, does this gender imbalance persist? Is it because men are simply “better” at business than women?
Tatiana Manolova, a professor of Management and internationally recognized expert on gender and entrepreneurship, rejects the notion that business success is directly attributable to biological differences. The reality, she says, is much more complicated. “Gender role expectations have traditionally limited women’s access to income-earning opportunities,” she explains, and have created long-standing cultural and structural barriers for women in the workplace, both in the U.S. and around the world.
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Across cultures and throughout history, women’s worth has been defined domestically, their value as caregivers and housekeepers seen as socially subordinate to men’s roles as protectors and providers. As a result, women have consistently been denied access to educational and economic opportunities. In the U.S., for example, higher education was the exclusive province of (white) men until 1833, when Ohio’s Oberlin College opened its doors to women and students of color. (Even then, however, equality remained elusive: women were dismissed from classes on Mondays so they could do their male classmates’ laundry.)
Ivy League colleges — then, as now, widely considered a prerequisite for professional success — were particularly resistant to coeducation. To avoid admitting women, many prominent universities instead established “sister schools,” educating women separately, and often unequally; female students at Radcliffe, for example, were denied access to Harvard’s libraries. Even in colleges created specifically for women, curricula were often constrained by gender norms: fearful that overly rigorous academics would encourage women to abandon their traditional domestic roles, these institutions emphasized marital and maternal responsibilities as much as mathematics. True educational equity wasn’t prioritized until 1972, when Title IX legislation prohibited sex discrimination within academic programs and extracurricular activities for any institution receiving federal funds.
Educational inequities were further compounded by economic impediments, says Manolova, who notes that women were effectively excluded from the labor market for most of America’s history. In 1920, when the U.S. Department of Labor established its Women’s Bureau, just 20% of the nation’s workforce was female. Typically employed as domestic servants and factory workers, these women were young, poor, uneducated and unmarried and left the labor market upon becoming wives and mothers. World War II, which necessitated the mobilization of female workers for defense production, encouraged more women to contemplate careers, and by 1950, women accounted for 34% of all U.S. workers. (By comparison, 46.8% of the labor force was female in 2022, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
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Yet, despite their growing numbers, American women in the mid-20th century continued to face barriers to economic independence. As with higher education, gender norms influenced both the kinds of jobs available to women and what they were paid. According to Manolova, this cultural phenomenon is known as occupational segregation, and it draws on gender stereotypes to define socially acceptable occupations for women and men. In 1950, “women’s work” became synonymous with lower-paying, service-related jobs, such as teaching, nursing, clerical work and retail sales, while men were accorded more authoritative and higher-paying roles in business, finance, engineering and politics.
Such occupational bias is both pernicious and persistent, says Kristi Minnick, Bentley’s Stanton Professor of Finance, and is a major reason why the gender pay gap not only exists, but endures. In the U.S. in 2022, women earned, on average, 82 cents for every dollar earned by men — a number nearly identical to the amount (80 cents) they were earning 20 years prior. According to the World Economic Forum, 80% of the gender pay gap can be attributed to the “motherhood penalty,” or the systemic belief that women are less capable and committed to their jobs once they have children.
“Gender pay gaps typically arise within five years after the birth of a first child, when women are more likely to work shorter hours and be absent from work more often,” Minnick explains. In the absence of paid parental leave or other flexible work arrangements, mothers are more likely to seek out part-time jobs or leave the labor market altogether. If or when they choose to return to full-time work, their earning potential is often diminished: the National Women’s Law Center found that working mothers earn 75 cents for every dollar earned by working fathers — a pay gap that, on average, translates to a loss of $15,300 annually.
What’s more, even if American women earned competitive wages, they historically held little power over their paychecks. In 1862, California became the first state to allow women to open their own bank accounts. However, most U.S. institutions continued to require women to have their husband’s or a male relative’s permission — a practice that persisted for more than a century. Women were similarly prohibited from having their own credit cards until 1974, when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act outlawed gender- and race-based financial discrimination. And until the passage of the Women’s Business Ownership Act in 1988, women were denied business loans unless they had a male co-signer.
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Until the legislative removal of these enduring educational and economic barriers in the 1970s and ’80s, American women had few opportunities to succeed in corporate life. But as both Manolova and Minnick point out, they’re quickly making up for lost time. In 2022, 42% of American businesses were owned by women (compared with just 29% in 2010), employing 9.4 million people and generating $1.8 trillion in revenue. According to Boston Consulting Group, female entrepreneurs are also more profitable, generating 78 cents for every investment dollar they receive, or more than twice the amount (31 cents) earned by their male counterparts.
Yet, despite these successes, gender bias persists. As Manolova notes, female start-up owners received just 2% of the record $380 billion in venture capital funds awarded in 2021. Their companies also tend to be based in stereotypically “feminine” industries, such as health and personal services, arts and entertainment and consumer goods. She also notes that when women do advance to C-suite positions, “they’re much more likely to represent traditionally ‘female’ fields, like marketing or human resources.”
While Manolova and Minnick agree that achieving true gender equity will require a radical reassessment of cultural norms, both are encouraged by what they see as a growing awareness of the value women bring to the corporate world. “Women’s capabilities are increasingly recognized as complementary to business goals,” Manolova explains, noting that female business leaders tend to be more collaborative, inclusive, empathetic and adaptable. Similarly, Minnick’s own research indicates female board members create value in their companies by being more diligent and communicative in their decision-making.
In addition, the 2022 Women in the Workplace report found that female business leaders are twice as likely as men in similar roles to devote a significant portion of time to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their companies. And female entrepreneurs, Manolova notes, are more likely to create businesses that positively impact society. Both of which bode well for the future, as evidenced by findings from the recent Bentley University – Gallup Force for Good Survey: Among younger workers, categorized as millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012), 82% think it’s important for businesses to promote DEI, while 88% believe companies should “make the world a better place.” As both generations will account for 58% of the U.S. workforce by 2030, these survey responses indicate a potentially powerful alignment between the goals of women business leaders and the majority of employees.
Ultimately, says Manolova, neither men nor women are “better” at business —both bring unique and valuable perspectives to the table. Instead of making gender comparisons, companies should focus on creating community, acknowledging and addressing existing structural inequities and ensuring that all employees have opportunities to succeed. “What we should be striving for is balance,” she explains. “Only then can we leverage the richness of our differences and make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.”