Catalyst Study Finds Women Fall Back as Men Get the Hot Jobs

Photograph by Reza Estakhrian

In the annals of business, there are few characters more poignant than the ambitious corporate woman. She’s been prodded and pitied and parodied for years. One minute she’s opting out, torn between the demands of babies and bosses. The next, she’s outpacing men in college degrees and her determination to put career first. Despite getting plenty of credentials, mentors, and flextime at work, though, she’s still conspicuously absent from the corridors of power.

Why? Among other things, a Catalyst study of 1,660 MBA grads worldwide finds she’s not getting the hot jobs. In fact, men get projects that boast more than twice the budget and three times the staff as projects headed by women. It’s no surprise that they also have more face time with folks in the C-suite—with 35 percent of men saying they get high visibility there while only 26 percent of women say the same. From there, Catalyst says, women are less likely to get profit-and-loss responsibility, a chance to manage people, and a budget of more than $10 million. So even if they start with the same skills and ambition as men, women’s careers can get stalled by lesser projects that aren’t even on the CEO’s radar screen. As Catalyst’s Senior Director of Research Christine Silva says, “It’s not just about leading projects. It’s how big those projects are.”

On one level, the Nov. 12 report offers fresh proof that women face tough hurdles when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder. And few organizations are more acutely attuned to the glacial pace of that progress than Catalyst. For 50 years, the nonprofit group has studied and advised companies on how to expand opportunities for women. It keeps a tally showing that women now hold 3.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.0 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions. With those kinds of numbers, can you blame high achievers who want to break out the bubbly (bath) and just go home?

But the report’s value lies well beyond the numbers. This is the sixth one to emerge from a longitudinal research study of more than 4,100 MBA alumni that began in 2008. The program targets graduates from 26 top business schools worldwide, including the Indian Institutes of Management, National University of Singapore Business School, Europe’s INSEAD, Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and a dozen U.S. programs from MIT’s Sloan School to Stanford. (Harvard is notably absent from the list.) About 30 percent of the study’s respondents are women, roughly in line with the percentage of graduates, and the study tracks those who graduated between 1996 and 2007. The goal: to study highly talented employees as they work through their careers. If Catalyst can stay in touch with them (always a challenge as people move around), it could become an incredible resource in understanding not only gender patterns but the impact of culture and demographics on leaders.

Taken in isolation, the latest study leaves a number of questions unanswered. It doesn’t reveal whether women choose to take on smaller, lower-profile projects for reasons that may range from family to a fear of failure. It doesn’t break down the findings by industry or geography, nor does it leverage its demographic range. It would be interesting to know if the 2007 grads report as wide a gap in opportunity as those who entered the workforce a decade earlier. Some of the other findings are frustratingly brief, such as the fact that women enter leadership programs earlier in their careers and stay longer, and they get more mentors than men. Is that a good thing? Given the dearth of opportunities, presumably not.

What Catalyst’s latest poll of this group does prove is the fact that nothing trumps experience on the job. Coaching and lactation rooms are great. But if leaders aren’t putting their high-potential women in mission-critical roles that come with high risk and hefty budgets, they’re not serious about their commitment. Instead of boosting programs that nurture top women, smart leaders should look at whether they’re truly offering assignments that help women stretch.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.