The 16 Percent Ghetto: Breaking Through a Glass Ceiling


Even several decades following the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, inequality still exists between men and women in the workforce. Why do women seem to “max out” at the 16% threshold in every industry when it comes to leadership positions? 

A recent study conducted at Concordia University, which found that only three percent of the top executives among Fortune 500 companies are women, caused me to reflect on the reasons disparity in leadership positions exists regardless of the many studies claiming that women are better suited than men to hold leadership positions.

According to Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, regardless of what sector women are working in, they are maxing out at 16% when it comes to holding positions of power – this underrepresentation of women leaders is what she calls the “16 percent ghetto.” 

Why is there a glaring leadership gap, and why is that percentage so low? Let’s look at a few concrete examples in various labor industries.

Take, for example, the United States governmental body. In the U.S., women make up 17% of the Senate, and only 16.8% of the House of Representatives. Three out of nine of the Supreme Court Justices are women, and only 12% of governors are women. Females make up about 23.65 of  elected representatives, and out of the 100 largest cities in the country, only 9% of mayors are women.

However, this disparity is not only prevalent in politics, but also in other sectors, such as business, academia, law, and religion. As reported in Women and Leadership, by Deborah Rhode and Barbara Kellerman, “Less than a quarter of full-time professors and a fifth of college presidents are female. In management, women account for about a third of M.B.A. classes, but only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 6 percent of top earners, 8 percent of top leadership positions, and 16 percent of board directors and corporate officers. In law, women constitute about half of new entrants to the profession, but less than a fifth of law firm partners, federal judges, law school deans, and Fortune 500 general counsels. Half the students in divinity school are women, but they account for only 3 percent of the pastors of large congregations in protestant churches that have been ordaining women for decades.” There is an even slimmer margin of women leaders in the finance sector, where 57% of workers are women; yet only 1.5 percent are CEO’s.

It is clear that leadership roles are not evenly divided between male and females. But does this mean that women are not as qualified as men to fulfill these roles?

No. Although imbalanced, the ability for women to contribute to social and cultural affairs equally has nothing to do with whether or not there is a lack of qualified women in the executive talent pool, but has more to do with the fact that there are several barriers to advancement for women that men do not always face. According to Rhode, “The reasons have to do with unconscious bias, the persistence of exclusionary networks and opportunities, and work-family barriers.” In many settings, women are more subject to a highly biased evaluation process because of preconceived notions as well as their likelihood of being able to arrive early and stay late when motherhood is reached. For instance, although women are encouraged to assume traditional men’s roles, the opposite does not hold true. Women tend to take more time off to assume major familial roles, such as child rearing, emergency, and elderly care.

As a direct consequence, there is a significant tradeoff made between time dedicated to family and time dedicated to decision-making roles without compromising one or the other. This also explains why many women choose to leave the corporate world in order to pursue careers that allow them to work from home, such as entrepreneurial enterprises which allow for more flexibility and where time between family and work are not as constricted.

Although it almost seems like a catch 22, it is not a fully vicious cycle that has not been overcome by extraordinary women professionals. Qualities that are traditionally attributed to women, such as empathy, curiosity, and collaboration are believed to be more effective when it comes to a leadership approach. Many women have a “transformational leadership” style – the most desirable style of leadership. This means they can connect to the employee’s sense of self, act as an inspirational role model, and have better perception of others’ strengths and weaknesses. All of these things help to enhance employee performance, which partly explains why women in senior management positions tend to turn higher profits.

It is evident that although women may be better suited for leadership roles in senior management than originally perceived, until there is more flexibility for work-life balance, the disparity in gender, pay, and opportunity will remain. Companies are making strides as some begin adopting new strategies of having women in high standing positions in order to increase net profits yielded and company success. While this may be a small step; slowly and steadily, we are breaking the glass ceiling that brings us closer to labor equality.


TramElizabeth Nguyen

Brandeis University ‘14

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