Women in the World

03.11.11

Trapped in the 'Marzipan Layer': Why Women Can't Make it to the Top

Why can't women make it to the top?

In a funny and fast-paced panel on Friday afternoon, Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, explained that when it comes to women in the workplace, females are constantly stuck under the top layer. In fact, a female college graduate will earn $1.2 million less in her lifetime than her male peer, even though females now have more graduate degrees than men.

Why can’t women break through the glass ceiling? Many of the panelists cited the fact that men often attribute their successes to themselves, while women usually give credit to other colleagues who helped. “You can negotiate for your child, for your country and we will like you for that,” said Cheryl Mills, counselor and chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “But, for yourself… how do you do that?” Women aren’t taught to go after things as much as men—and when they do, they worry others will see them as too aggressive and not likeable. “I don’t believe women are leaning in their careers as much as men,” said Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. “Women for a bunch of reasons are not sure they want promotions.” Sitting to her left, the only male on the panel, John Donahoe, president and CEO of eBay Inc., chimed in: “Well, I like it when a women leans in, in any organization.” The crowd laughed. “I am the minority so you can make as much fun of me as you want,” he joked.

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Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, explained that part of the problem keeping women under the top echelons of power has to do with the fact that they aren’t getting seats on boards like men are. “Fifty percent of the people are appointed on a board because they know the chairman,” she said. “And it’s a chair-MAN.” So women just aren’t getting the board seats. Sandberg added that what compounds the problem is so many women leave the workplace to have kids and they never come back. When it’s time to find C-level executives in relevant industries, there ends up being a lot more men than women.

The age-old dilemma between work and family balance came up, with Mills explaining that in a household with both women and men working, women do twice as much of the housework and three times as much caring for the children as men. Companies need to give women ways to come back into the workforce after having children, said Blair. Donahoe told a story where his wife was clerking for a judge and it fell on him to take the kids to school. He told his boss at Bain Consulting that he was going to have to quit because he was traveling so much and couldn’t make things work. But, his boss got him the help he needed so he didn’t have to be in until 10 a.m. The moral of the story? We all should demand "customizable options at different parts of your career.”