Skip to Main Content
by Phil Stott | May 22, 2015


It's a well-known fact that women make up just 5% of the CEO class among Fortune 500 companies. According to a new report by Bain and Company, that's unlikely to be changing anytime soon--it found that despite starting their careers with more desire to reach the executive suite than men, and higher levels of optimism that they can achieve the goal, by the time they hit the midpoint of their careers, women are significantly less likely than men to want to make it to the top, or believe that it's possible.

Here's how the shift looks in chart form:

Bain Women Motivation Gap


The report suggests several reasons for the attitudinal shift over time--most prominently, "a clash with the stereotype of the ideal worker, a lack of supervisory support and too few role models in senior-level positions."

The second and third of these reasons are fairly well-documented phenomenons: witness the opening sentence of this post. Also, it's no secret that women struggle to find mentors and sponsors at work compared to men, or that men are much more likely to bond with one another outside of the office--tales of deals and promotions being sealed on golf courses or at "gentlemen's" clubs are in no way apocryphal, and these kinds of activities tend not to be inclusive to female employees.

That first point, however--the clash with the stereotype of the ideal worker--is a less commonly-seen rationale for the differences in motivation between men and women. It can perhaps best be summed up by this quote from one of the participants in the study, as cited by its authors in the Harvard Business Review.

"One woman recounted her firm's recent management retreat: 'Watching middle-aged white male after middle-age white male tell their war stories of sacrificing everything to close the sale was demoralizing, I just kept sinking lower in my chair and thinking that I would never be able to make it to the senior ranks if this was what it took.'" 

To me, that's a significantly bigger issue than either of the other reasons listed above--those can be, and increasingly are being, addressed through internal programs at firms. But the concept of the stereotypically successful employee cuts right to the heart of corporate life: changing that is less about tweaking how obstacles on the playing field are laid out and more about reevaluating the nature of the game itself.

If the concept of what it means to be successful within a business is well-defined (increased sales, ROI on your marketing, etc.), then it stands to reason that those who are prepared to do what it takes to be successful will be the ones who make it to the upper levels of the firm. Put another way, is it possible to change the path to becoming a successful business person without first changing how we define success?

Of course, it's entirely possible that the only thing the survey has uncovered is attitudinal differences among employees of different generations; today's female college leavers may be better equipped to navigate the corporate world than their peers were 5, 10, or 15 years ago. But the problem for those of us who believe that gender balance in the executive suites (not to mention government) is a critical issue, is that we can't afford to let another 5, 10, or 15 years go by without any improvement.

What's your take on the study, and the issue of women being underrepresented at senior levels of companies? Let us know in the comments below.


Long Hours: How to Fake it Like a Top Consultant

The Best Countries for Women Managers

Why Are Women in the US Less Likely to Work?