Women Making Progress in Management But ‘Glass Ceiling’ Separates Women From Top Jobs

Released in Geneva and Washington D.C.

[sws_white_box box_size=”675″]

Linda Wirth, ILO labor expert and main author of the report, will be in Washington D.C. on Wednesday and Thursday, December 10 and 11, 1997, and is available for interviews. Journalists can also attend a breakfast on December 11th with Ms. Wirth and ILO Deputy Director-General Katherine Hagen. Please call 703-820-2244 to schedule a time or to make a reservation for the breakfast.


American and Canadian women have made the most progress of all females worldwide in breaking through the “glass ceiling” to management positions, occupying more than 40 percent of manager jobs in their respective countries, according to a new International Labour Organization (ILO) report entitled Breaking through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management.

On the other hand, many national surveys, including in North America, show that women’s share of the very top positions in the largest and most powerful corporations is limited to a mere 2-3 percent. In addition, the average female participation in management jobs worldwide is just 20 percent, the report says.

In the United States, when women workers are equally qualified vis-à-vis male workers, they now constitute 46 percent of the managerial workforce. In Canada, women account for 42 percent of all managers. However, a 1996 survey of Fortune 500 companies in the United States showed that women held only 2.4 percent of the highest management jobs and accounted for a tiny 1.9 percent of the highest-paid officers and directors. Median weekly earnings of women managers in the U.S. in 1995 was only 68 percent of their male counterparts.

In Japan, the percentage of women directors of companies (including small- and medium-sized enterprises) increased from 9 to 13 percent since 1970. A government survey reported that women’s share in professional and technological occupations grew from almost 31 percent in 1950 to 42 percent in 1990. However, the percentage of women holding positions as top managers of major corporations increased from only 1 to 2 percent during that period.

A survey in Brazil in 1991 revealed that only 3 percent of top executives were women and in the 40 largest state-owned companies, the figure was less than 1 percent. Another survey in Brazil found that female managers often earned only half the salary of male managers.

In Europe, the pattern is much the same. A 1996 survey of 300 firms in the United Kingdom (UK) found that 3 percent of board members were women. Another survey of the Financial Times Stock Index of 100 companies found that women accounted for only 4 percent of directors and 2 percent of executive directorships. Women managers earned only 71 percent of male managers’ weekly salaries. However, the earnings of women professionals in the UK reached 83 percent of those of men, making UK women professionals one of the least disadvantaged groups in terms of the wage gap.

In Germany in 1995, a survey of the 70,000 largest companies showed that women held between 1 and 3 percent of the top executive and board positions while their share of senior and middle management was 6 and 12 percent, respectively.

In France, the proportion of women as executives of large companies is comparatively high at 13 percent in 1990, but that is down from 15 percent in 1982. Similar reductions occurred in women’s share as executives in small- and medium-sized enterprises. There was only a slight improvement in women’s share of senior management posts in the financial, administrative and commercial services of large companies, from 4 to 6 percent.

High-level professional women have made progress in some countries in recent years. In the Netherlands, for example, women increased their participation in senior management from 10 percent in the 1970s to 18 percent in 1990. In Canada, during roughly the same period, women’s presence in senior positions shot up from a lowly 4 percent to approximately 21 percent. In Australia and Finland, women make up around 11 percent of senior management, and the rate is increasing.

In Mexico, women’s share of public and private sector managerial positions rose from a relatively high 16 percent in 1980 to 19 percent by 1990. In Hungary, women increased their share as enterprise or organization managers from 16 to 25 percent between 1980 and 1990. Even so, the proportion of managerial women is higher in some developing countries such as Columbia, the Philippines, Uruguay and Venezuela than in many industrialized countries, the report says.

In Thailand, the proportion of women managers in 1990 totaled 19 percent, compared to 8 percent in 1974. In Singapore, that proportion increased from 22 percent in 1992 to 27 percent in 1996. In Colombia, it grew from 14 percent in 1980, to 27 percent in 1990, and 37 percent in 1996. In Chile, it grew from 20 percent in 1980 to 27 percent in 1995 and 8 percent of directors and high-level executives in Chile are women.

Even though the proportion of women in management has doubled or even tripled in certain countries, the numbers remain generally low. In 1970, for example, women accounted for 3 percent of managers in Tunisia, which increased to 9 percent by 1990. In Niger, the percentage of women managers and administrators rose from 3 percent in 1986 to 8 percent in 1991. Similarly, in Turkey women held 10 percent of these jobs in 1995, up from 5 percent in 1988; in Malaysia, women’s share rose to 10 percent in 1995, up from 3 percent in 1986.

In some countries, little change has occurred in women’s share of management. Women made up 5 percent of administrative and managerial jobs in Bahrain in 1987 and this had increased by only one percentage point by 1994. The proportion of women in such jobs in Pakistan grew only from 3 to 4 percent between 1989 and 1994. In Argentina, only 5 percent of managerial jobs in industrial enterprises and 6 percent in services and construction were held by women in 1995.

Occupational Segregation by Gender

In spite of the overall progress of women in middle management, the author of the report, ILO labor expert Linda Wirth, concludes: “Almost universally, women have failed to reach leading positions in major corporations and private sector organizations, irrespective of their abilities.”

She adds that even where progress has been greatest, “women generally fare best in industries employing large numbers of women, such as health and community services and the hotel and catering industry.” She argues that “the gender gap at the top is simply the most glaring example of employment segregation by sex that prevails across the entire spectrum of labor market opportunities.”

Women in management tend to be clustered in certain activities, to the point where certain company functions are almost feminized. In the U.S., the increase of women’s share of personnel and labor relations managers was higher than in other areas, from 21 percent in 1970 to 58 percent in 1991. In France, the percentage of women personnel managers increased from 25 percent in 1982 to 38 percent in 1990. In Finland, the proportion of personnel managers who were women shot up from 17 percent in 1970 to 70 percent in 1990.

In the organizational structures of corporations, career paths in human resource management and administration are less likely to lead directly to the top than other strategic areas such as product development or corporate finance.

The report cites ILO research that has found that approximately half of all the world’s workers are in sex-stereotyped occupations wherein males or females represent at least 80 percent of all workers in certain professions, making them “male” or “female” occupations.

The ILO research shows that gender inequality in education and training, reinforced by social attitudes, contributes to this occupational segregation, channeling men and women into different trades, professions and jobs from an early age. It also indicates that for non-agricultural occupations, there are more than seven times as many male-dominated occupations as female-dominated ones.

So segregated are certain jobs that, for example, in both Japan and the U.S. in 1991, nearly one-half of women employed in the category of professional and technical jobs worked in only two occupations, nursing and teaching. In India and Hong Kong, more than 80 percent of women professional and technical workers were either nurses or teachers.

In Canada, where the proportion of working women nearly doubled in recent decades to reach 60 percent in 1991, women remain concentrated in a narrow range of occupations. In the mid-1980s, for example, nearly one-third of all employed women worked in clerical jobs, whereas only 12 percent of men were concentrated in any single major occupational category.

A study of 27 occupational categories in the Republic of Korea in 1992 showed that women represented 70 percent of the workforce in four categories: subsistence agriculture, health care, clerical work and food processing. In five other categories they represented less than 5 percent, including legislators and senior officials (none), corporate managers (2 percent) and mathematicians and engineering professionals (4 percent).

The report says that even in countries with strong records of government support for gender equality the pattern of occupational segregation prevails. In Finland, for example, only 20 percent of women work in occupations that show a balanced male/female employment ratio (where 40-60 percent of employees are of the same sex) and these jobs represent only seven percent of all occupations.

Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling

The report says that while more and more women work, their jobs are often assigned a lower value in terms of skill requirements and remuneration. While women’s education, training and work experience are increasingly equipping them with the necessary qualifications and skills to aspire to and be selected for top positions, significant gender differences persist in the nature and quality of education and training, says Ms. Wirth. These can represent real obstacles for many women at the recruitment stage, as well as later on in their careers.

Improving the quality of women’s education initially depends on support from the family and community in encouraging girls, and providing them with the same educational and training opportunities as boys, particularly in the areas of science and technology, the report says.

For working women, the report says that gender-sensitive, human-resource strategies developed by enterprises in recent decades provide the best ways through the glass ceiling, including networking, career tracking, mentoring and succession planning that pays particular attention to the situation of women. Objective and unbiased recruitment and promotion procedures are vital in attracting and retaining skilled professional women. Ms. Wirth argues that in light of the increasing skill levels of women in the workforce, such strategies are necessary: “Women are increasingly a key resource in the race to create new products and services and they are consumers as well. Competitive companies cannot afford to lose out on women’s talent.”

The hurdles facing women aspiring to management jobs can be so formidable that they sometimes abandon efforts to make it to the top of large firms, the report says. Such women often take their energy and know-how to smaller and more flexible companies, or set up their own businesses. In the United States, a third of small and medium-sized companies are now run by women. One-third of Finnish entrepreneurs are women.

While businesses run by women are usually small, employing up to five persons, their importance to the overall economy is growing. Two studies found that women headed about a quarter of small businesses in Brazil. However, women probably run more than 50 percent of micro-enterprises and small businesses in Brazil.

Many women in developing countries seem to be well educated and prepared for professional occupations, and their skills are in demand, says Ms. Wirth. Women in developing countries also have access to more child care and household assistance, thanks to extended family systems and the availability of affordable domestic help.

The ILO will hold a Tripartite Meeting involving representatives of governments, employers and workers from 20 countries in Geneva from December 15-19 in Geneva to discuss the findings of the report and examine the situation of working women in management. The meeting’s participants will seek to develop action strategies designed to provide more and better jobs for women, especially in management and top-level positions.

Category: Press Release