Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

Deficits in Leadership Advancement for Competent Women

Once upon a time, there was a pipeline problem for women advancing to the top of their fields because there were so few women at the entry level. That is not necessarily the case anymore. In many fields, there are plenty of talented and hardworking women at the foundational level, but still few women at the top of their profession. Why?

There is overwhelming evidence that the main obstacles to women taking leadership roles are: gender discrimination, negative work climates, and women lacking confidence to advance in their careers compared to their (over)confident male peers.

We will take a closer look at three very different areas where there are relatively few women who have made it to the top of their profession: Academic Medicine; CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies; Space Flight.

Academic Medicine. The typical career pipeline starts with getting a faculty position and advancing to becoming full professor, then chair of department, then on to the dean’s position. For women, there are large drop offs between the stages of assistant, associate, and full professors, with a further drop off between full professor and department chair (see Figure below, ref 1, used with permission). The right side of the graph shows where power and influence lies – with department chairs and deans – and women only represent 15% and 16% in those two groups, respectively.  There is minimal gender disparity in the pipeline leading into academic medicine – but increasing disparity as women advance through the ranks.

acadmed-womenThere has been much discussion as to why there isn’t greater female representation at the top (full professors, department chairs, and deans). Interviews with female faculty indicate a high degree of explicit gender discrimination and sexual harassment. It was noted by Carr and coworkers (2) that, “Forty percent of respondents ranked gender discrimination first out of 11 possible choices for hindering their career in academic medicine.” And, “Respondents rated themselves as poorly prepared to deal with gender discrimination and noted effects on professional self-confidence, self-esteem, collegiality, isolation, and career satisfaction. The hierarchical structure in academe is perceived to work against women, as there are few women at the top. Women faculty who have experienced gender discrimination perceive that little can be done to directly address this issue. Institutions need to be proactive and recurrently evaluate the gender climate, as well as provide transparent information and fair scrutiny of promotion and salary decisions.” Further, Pololi and coworkers (3) write that the key finding from their survey study “… is that male and female faculty have equal feelings of being engaged and enthusiastic about their work and have equal leadership aspirations, yet women faculty do not feel as confident about career advancement as men, do not feel equally included in the environment of academia, and their personal values are more likely to be at odds with institutional values.”

CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies. The Fortune 500 is an annual list of the 500 largest companies using the most recent revenue figures and includes public and private companies. As of October 2015, women hold just 23 (4.4%) of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies. See table below (4):

CEO Company 2015 Fortune 500 ranking
Mary Barra General Motors 6
Meg Whitman[3] Hewlett-Packard 19
Virginia Rometty[4] IBM 24
Indra K. Nooyi[5] PepsiCo, Inc. 44
Marillyn Hewson[6] Lockheed Martin 64
Safra A. Catz[7] Oracle 81
Irene B. Rosenfeld[8] Mondelēz International 91
Phebe Novakovic General Dynamics 100
Carol Meyrowitz The TJX Companies, Inc. 103
Lynn Good[9] Duke Energy 116
S. Tricia Griffith Progressive 137
Ursula M. Burns[10] Xerox Corporation 143
Deanna M. Mulligan Guardian Life Insurance Company of America 254
Barbara Rentler Ross Stores 269
Debra L. Reed Sempra Energy 270
Kimberly Lubel CST Brands 277
Sheri S. McCoy[11] Avon Products Inc. 322
Susan M. Cameron Reynolds American 337
Denise M. Morrison[12] Campbell Soup 342
Kathleen Mazzarella Graybar Electric 445
Ilene Gordon Ingredion 462
Lisa Su[13] Advanced Micro Devices 473
Jacqueline C. Hinman CH2M Hill 480

Sarah Dillard and Vanessa Lipschitz write in the Harvard Business Review (5) that, “Most women running Fortune 500 companies did not immediately hop on a “competitive business track,” as advised by top business schools. “The consistent theme in the data is that steady focus wins the day. The median long stint for these women CEOs is 23 years spent at a single company in one stretch before becoming the CEO. To understand whether this was the norm, we pulled a random sample of their male Fortune 500 CEO counterparts. For the men in the sample, the median long stint is 15 years. This means that for women, the long climb is over 50% longer than for their male peers. Moreover, 71% of the female CEOs were promoted as long-term insiders versus only 48% of the male CEOs. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for hopscotch early in women’s careers.”

The data shows that how the game is played to get to the top is different for men than for women. “…there is something inspiring for young women in the stories of these female CEOs: the notion that regardless of background, you can commit to a company, work hard, prove yourself in multiple roles, and ultimately ascend to top leadership. These female CEOs didn’t have to go to the best schools or get the most prestigious jobs. But they did have to find a good place to climb.”

Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation (6), states that, “… women at the top [of companies] lead to better stock performance and greater revenue. Based on data from the Bloomberg World Equity Index, the top performing companies, based on stock performance over two years, had the highest ratio of female executives. And according to Catalyst (7), companies with more women in top roles generate 34 percent greater returns to shareholders.”

The stereotype that women make poor leaders compared to men is not true. Research shows that women have the potential to be more effective leaders for organizational change, as they demonstrate a more “transformational” style of leadership than men do (8). Given that, as of 2015, women make up 56.7% of the total U.S. workforce (9), that’s a lot of untapped potential for great leadership in business.

Space Flight. As of July 2016, 60 women have flown in space, out of a total of 537 astro/cosmonauts (10). It was slow going at first for women to directly participate in space flight. The first woman to fly in space was the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshcova in 1963. This was just two years after the first person to fly in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargaran. And although the Soviet Union sent the first two women into space, only a total of four Soviet/Russian women – to date – have flown. What caused this initial enthusiasm for including women at the top levels of the Soviet space program to die on the vine?

The other female astronauts to fly in space hail from the United States (the most with 45), with two each from Canada, China, and Japan, and one each from France, India, Italy, and South Korea (10).

The story of Valentina Tereshcova is especially interesting because of the controversy surrounding her experiences during early space flight in 1963. I will not rewrite what has already been described in several articles (refer to 11, 12, 13, 14). It should be noted that the reason Tereshcova was selected above other potential cosmonauts was her experience as a parachutist. This was an important and necessary skill in order to survive the landing part of early Soviet space travel – ejection from the space capsule after entering the earth’s atmosphere at about 20,000 feet. Although Tereshcova was deemed a hero and received the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union awards, the Soviet Union/Russia have been slow to allow women to fly in space after her. A common problem of space flight is nausea and vomiting, and Tereshcova was not immune to this. However, accounts differ as to how she handled the challenges of space flight. According to Liz Fuller-Wright, writing for The Christian Science Monitor (14):

“She didn’t want to go,” Soviet space scientists told me during my own years as a NASA funded researcher. “She was so hysterical that she threw up in space,” they said.  “At the last minute, she panicked, and they had to strap her into her seat against her will.”

While her nausea was documented – she did indeed vomit in space, and spent most of her three-day trip sitting as still as possible – space nausea is a common enough problem that NASA has designed a high-tech solution, while “hysteria” is a dismissive label applied almost exclusively to women.

There is no viable evidence, including directly from Tereshcova, that she did not want to go into space. Additionally, there is controversy surrounding the circumstances of flight problems she experienced in 1963. Were they her fault as suggested by other members of the Soviet space team, or did she perform heroically to overcome technical problems not of her doing?

The perception of female weakness, where there was none, likely contributed to the near-cessation of Soviet/Russian women participation in space flight. Interestingly, 50% of the latest class of NASA astronauts (4 of 8) are women – and slated to fly to Mars (see photo below; 15).

Parity at last! Too bad it had to happen with one foot on Mars, instead of fully on Earth.




  1. The State of Women in Academic Medicine: The Pipeline and Pathways to Leadership, 2013-2014. A report of the Association of American Colleges.
  2. Carr PL, Szalacha L, Barnett R, Caswell C, Inui T (2003) A “ton of feathers”: gender discrimination in academic medical careers and how to manage it. J Womens Health 12: 1009-18.
  3. Pololi LH, Civian JT, Brennan RT, Dottolo AL, Krupat E (2012) Experiencing the Culture of Academic Medicine: Gender Matters, A National Study. J Gen Int Med 28: 201-207.
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_women_CEOs_of_Fortune_500_companies
  5. Dillard S, Lipschitz V (2014) Research: How Female CEOs actually get to the top. Harvard Business Review.
  6. Rodin J (2016) It’s Time for 100 Women CEOs in the Fortune 500. The Rockefeller Foundation.
  7. Catalyst Study Reveals Financial Performance is Higher For Companies with More Women at the Top
  8. Eagly AH, Johannesen-Schmidt MC, van Engen ML (2003) Transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles: A meta- analysis comparing women and men. Psychol Bulletin 129: 569 –591.
  9. United States Department of Labor. 
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_astronauts
  11. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34270395
  12. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-woman-in-space
  13. http://www.biography.com/people/valentina-tereshkova-022516
  14. http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2013/0614/First-woman-in-space-Miserable-cosmonaut-or-triumphant-pioneer
  15. http://www.sciencealert.com/the-latest-class-of-nasa-astronauts-is-50-female


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This entry was posted on November 4, 2016 by .

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