A Look at Women in Corporate America: Her Evolving and Expanding Role

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“I am woman, hear me roar,” first made its way onto American airways in 1972.

At the time, the idea of women holding key positions in corporate America was quite far-fetched in the eyes of a large number of men — and many women.

The anthem of the song has endured and continues to resonate with women three decades later. While the glass ceiling has not yet been shattered, the cracks in the glass have created a kaleidoscope of changes to the landscape of corporate America.

Women in corporate America are, as the song proclaims, “in numbers too big to ignore.”

Getting the Job Done in Leadership Roles

Today, the roles of women in corporate positions are growing and constantly expanding with women as CEOs in 24 Fortune 500 companies, including big names like:

  • Mary Barra, General Motors
  • Meg Whitman, Hewlett Packard
  • Indra K. Nooyi, Pepsi
  • Marissa Mayer, Yahoo
  • Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin
  • Lynn J. Good, Duke Energy
  • And many, many more.

While at this stage of the game, women account for 4.8 percent of all Fortune 500 CEOs according to Catalyst, the nonprofit workplace research firm, the role of women in corporate America is growing. Even better is that many signs point to stronger and more consistent growth in the future.

Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis, IUPUI, states in their report, The Changing Role of Women in American Society, that:

“According to Catalyst studies, there is a direct correlation between gains in return on sales, return on equity, return on invested capital, and corporate social responsibility with increased numbers of women in leadership positions.”

It’s not just leadership roles as CEOs where women are making headway in the world of corporate America. According to the New York Times, there was only one woman heading a fortune 500 law department 25 years ago.

Today, women account for 21 percent of top lawyers among America’s Fortune 500, which is an increase of 17 percent five years before. Female attorneys hold top spots in aerospace and defense firms, however many of the majority are in industries such as insurance, food consumer products, and specialty retail sectors.

Let’s not forget the successes of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead either.

As more companies begin to see the value of women in key leadership roles, more businesses, interested in improving their financial standings — and making investors happy in the process — will have no choice but to expand offerings to women in businesses of all sizes, and in all industries.

Bringing Home the Bacon

Pew Research Center conducted a thorough study that determined women, on average, earn 84 percent of what men earn. However, it revealed information that is specifically relevant to women entering into business today: The gap between women just beginning their careers is significantly lower, with women earning 93 cents for every dollar men — at the same stages in their careers — earn.

A timeline of the pay gap between men and women displays the trend.

Year 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2012
Women 67 cents 75 cents 83 cents 85 cents 87 cents 89 cents 93 cents 93 cents
Men $1.00 $1.00 $1.00 $1.00 $1.00 $1.00 $1.00 $1.00

Source: Pew Research Center

It’s important to note that the biggest gains occurred at the height of the movement to increase the role of women in the workplace, during the 1980s where earnings jumped from 67 cents per dollar in 1980 to 83 cents per dollar in 1990. In the 22 years since then, there has only been ten cents of improvement – a little less than half a penny per year.

Unfortunately, this news does not indicate that the fight for equal pay among women is over. While the gap is narrowing, women still have a long way to go. Recent research shows that it’s falling off at later stages in careers with some women, particularly those who entered the workforce in the early 2000s, actually earning less compared to male counterparts who began their careers in the same year.

Many theories exist about this including the occupation specific theory that women typically choose careers that offer less pay, such as teaching and social work, than men.

Then there is the family factor with more women either taking time off from work to care for children, reducing work hours to care for loved ones, or quitting altogether for family responsibilities.

Finally, there is simple discrimination. The number of women who feel they’ve been discriminated against in the workplace due to their gender, 18 percent, nearly doubles that of men at 10 percent.

Making the Grade in Education

Obviously, education has played a pivotal role in the rise of women in corporate America. The Economist points out that while women account for 49.9 percent of American workers, they account for 60 percent of university degrees both in the U.S. and in Europe.

The key though, is not that women are getting more degrees. The fact is that women are becoming educated in marketable subjects. One example of the marked difference pointed out in the Economist article is that in 1966, 40 percent of the women who enrolled in college were pursuing degrees in education, while only 2 percent were pursuing degrees in business and management.

Today, those numbers have changed dramatically with 12 percent of women majoring in education and 50 percent majoring in business.

In addition, both part-time and online MBA programs give business career-oriented women the flexibility to obtain an MBA degree, as pointed out by Forbes magazine.

Engineering and computer sciences seem to be the only fields where women are not seeking degrees as much as men as women, in 2006, accounted for only 20 percent of degrees in these fields.

Education, though, is critical. 87 percent of women in the workforce today are college educated compared to only 67 percent of those with a high school diploma, and 47 percent of those who have no diploma.

Sharing the Spotlight In the Home

One of the biggest struggles women in corporate America face is the division of time and attention between work and home life. The divisions today are not as fierce as they may have been in the 1980’s, and to some degree the early 1990’s.

The pioneers, if you will, of the women’s movement into corporate America didn’t have role models to look up to. Their mothers largely stayed home and took care of the family. They never saw the struggles or juggling act that women entering the workforce circa 2000 and later probably grew up watching.

Today, women have learned how to ask for help in the home. Spouses are picking up more household chores, taking on more errands, and picking children up from school. More and more women are also embracing the role of a nanny as an important part of today’s American family.

The same goes for the workplace, where women have learned the importance of delegation for the sake of sanity and getting the job done. Women have also learned to prioritize their time. This allows them to focus on the important tasks at work and at home so that they can enjoy the family time when they’re with their family, as well as enjoying their time climbing the corporate ladder.

Changing Gender Roles

Gender roles in American families and households are changing. Some women in corporate America are deciding to hold off on having children or allowing men to take the reins within the household more often to create a better work/life balance for them. Yet, Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to not doubt their ability to combine work and family.

Mr. Mom was a novel idea in the 1980’s when the movie made its debut. Today, we see more and more men as stay at home dads or in the roles of primary caregivers, giving women license to pursue an MBA, focus on their careers, and climb higher on corporate ladders.

It’s not simply the gender roles within households making the difference though. The rise of women seeking degrees in fields once dominated by men, including MBAs, has created a gender parity never before seen in corporate America. It can no longer be argued that women aren’t equally qualified for men in many fields. You have the same education and the same degrees from the same top schools across the country.

Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in Corporate America

Things are looking up for women in corporate America and beyond. As a woman pursuing a career in corporate America or keeping her nose to the MBA degree grindstone, now is the perfect opportunity to take the hammer and shatter the glass ceiling for good.

The only things standing in her way are the limitations she sets for herself.