Why Women Don't Advance Past Middle Management

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Women in Management

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Georgene Huang
Georgene Huang

Why do so few women make it to senior management? This is an age-old question with an equally age-old set of accompanying commentary, with studies and statistics showing both that women choose not to pursue these roles and the consequences of bias (both the conscious and unconscious kinds) playing a large role in making it harder for women to succeed at work.

Recently, however, I read an article about the demographics of corporate organizations that adds a third type of answer. Is it possible that organizations have increasingly fewer openings at the top due to population demographics and business trends? If this were the case, it would be more difficult for people of any gender to rise up into the top ranks. And this would disproportionately hurt women since there was probably a smaller pool of female talent in middle management to begin with.

As Mike Streep and Don Strickland pointed out in a piece they penned for Forbes last week:

“Everything happens in the middle layers of a company. Middle management know the most about customers, competitors, products, technology and operations. They know the most about where the company should be heading, and are the first to sense the need for change. But a survey by Harvard Business Review found that 48% of Gen Y professionals (which make up the core of middle management) at Fortune 500 companies planned to leave their current job within two years.”

The reason for their planned exodus? Middle managers reported feeling stuck working long hours, making large personal sacrifices but sensing there was little hope of a promotion. Since women typically bear the brunt of child-rearing and family care-taking, we know that middle-management is a time when tradeoffs at home can be severely felt. If the chances of being promoted are in reality, very small, women may be simply making rational, calculated decisions that the pay-off may never materialize.

So is it true that there are now fewer positions at the top? One study found that the number of positions between CEO and division managers decreased by 25% between the mid-1980’s and the late 1990’s. The author described this phenomenon as “delayering”, i.e. the practice of eliminating key senior management positions that serve as intermediaries. For example, the Chief Operating Officer position, or the person who typically stands between the CEO and the rest of the firm, is increasingly rare, and that role is at least 20% less common than it was in the 1980’s.

Though I haven’t found more recent data to describe the flattening hierarchy at organizations overall, this phenomenon is certainly one you hear about anecdotally ("flat organizations" ring a bell?).

Moreover, labor force demographics have been impacted by the number of baby boomers in the job market. Streep and Strickland describe the number of professionals between the ages of 40-49 in the workforce (twice as many as those aged 30-39). who are not close to retirement and are entrenched in their roles in upper management as a "grey ceiling."

We’re not sure the data here is sufficient to conclude anything definitive about why employees are leaving their firms, much less whether women are disproportionately impacted en route to senior management. For starters, the data about flattening corporate hierarchies is out of date, and we’re not sure how the statistics about the number of Gen Y professionals reporting they plan on leaving their employers maps onto the numbers of people in their 40’s in the workforce.

That said, similar to board tenure, there may be in fact be a management hierarchy and turn-over issue that exacerbates the already difficult entry of middle-management women into senior leadership positions. It’s not great news for those of us who would like to see more women in management, but it certainly continues to point to the complexity and longer-term nature of the problem.


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