This Is Not Why Women Won't Become CEOs


Business columnist and recreational social theoretician Gene Marks recently posted an article article on Forbes’ website titled, “Why Most Women Will Never Become CEO,” which is sort of like writing an article titled, “Why Most People Named Gene Will Never Become CEO.” What Marks means, and what he writes about in the body of his article, is that most CEOs won’t be women, which is true even in the wake of Ginni Rometty and Meg Whitman’s recent promotions — according to USA Today, of the 3,409 publicly traded companies analyzed in a recent survey, only 98 of them were lead by female chief executive officers. For anybody who’s nodding and muttering, “Well 98 seems pretty m’ok,” that’s just 3.2 %.

If you can ignore the article’s incorrect title — i.e. that most people won’t ever become CEOs because it’s a highly competitive leadership role that requires, among other intangible virtues, the ability to sleep soundly and free of guilt on a large pile of executive compensation like a treasure-guarding dragon — you’ll be able to wade into article that’s more frustrating than it is outrageous. Though there’s plenty of data available through the miracles of the omniscient and almighty Interweb, including a very recent study posted by the very fancy Harvard Business Review, Marks relies almost exclusively for his evidence on behavioral observations he’s made while ferrying his son and daughter to and from the local multiplex. After observing on these car trips that his son’s teenage friends fart and high-five each other while his daughter’s friends stew in silence over a minor social crisis, Marks concludes triumphantly, “These are the reasons why most women do not become CEOs.” Huh? The reasons most women don’t become CEOs are that your son’s friends stink up your funky little family wagon and your daughter’s friends endure the ride with their friend’s embarrassing father in uneasy silence?

Sadly, that’s as close as Marks ever comes to clearly articulating one of the actual barriers between women and corporate leadership positions. Each of the “Four Ways Women Stunt Their Careers Unintentionally,” the Harvard Business Review outlines — modesty, not asking, blending in, and remaining silent — are some variation of Marks’s observation that his daughter’s friends are quieter than his son’s friends. (They are also ‘virtues’ that a patriarchy most traditionally values in women.) The rest of Marks’s article is an often clumsy and occasionally lazy analysis of certain injustices he’s observed in both professional and domestic gender relations, all of which he reasons are likely to overwhelm the gentler sex.

All these things add up. The surreptitious judgments in the office. The social pressures. The double-standard of behaviors. The burden of maintaining physical appearances. And you know what happens? Most women throw in the towel. They don’t want to put up with it. They leave the corporate world to raise families. Or start their own small businesses. And if they stay in the corporate world many do so without aspirations of becoming the top dog. They don’t want the headaches, the scrutiny, or the responsibility.

In one sense, Marks is right — if you just look at the numbers, women are still struggling to achieve professional parity with men. In her USA Today article, Lauren Petrecca concludes with three key discrepancies between professional men and women that make it harder for women to truly break the glass ceiling: women’s pay has stalled at 80-81% of that of men since 2004, women are statistically less confident of promotion than men, and, perhaps most important, women have fewer mentors and advocates in the executive ranks. Marks even correctly attributes the disparity between men and women to relentless social pressures and not to some inherent difference that would somehow make men better equipped to lead.

What’s so damning about Marks’s article isn’t what he’s saying but how he’s saying it. He’s an admitted prisoner of the social constructs that dictate that women are the default keepers of the home and that men are the default procurers. When he writes of his unwillingness to wake up and soothe his crying infant, “Yes, I was an ass,” he’s performing the critical thinking equivalent of a shrug. When he cites an “instinctual tug on their gut” as the main motivator for women to take up huswifery, he’s locking himself into a prison constructed of patriarchal values and tossing away the key. It’s precisely such complacent thinking about the traditional gender roles that keeps women from advancing to positions of cultural, economic, and civic leadership. Or, as Gayle Rubin frames it in her 1975 essay “The Traffic of Women,” “It is precisely this ‘historical and moral element’ which determines that a ‘wife’ is among the necessities of a worker, that women rather than men do housework, and that capitalism is heir to a long tradition in which women do not inherit, in which women do not lead, and in which women do not talk god.” And you sold your college textbooks back to the campus consignment shop, tsk tsk tsk.

Rather than focus on the fact that more women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than ever before, that seven of these women entered their new offices just this year, and the fun-fact that firms with more women in management positions tend to be more profitable that their male-dominated competitors, Marks chooses to illustrate how women have run up against an unbreakable barrier in corporate America. Thankfully, he’s such a sloppy illustrator that the barrier seems like just a series of squiggles.

Image via hxdbzxy/Shutterstock.

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