The impact of gender is hard to pin down decisively. But after years of biting their tongues, believing their ranks would swell if they simply worked hard, many senior women in business are concluding that the barriers are more deeply rooted and persistent than they wanted to believe, according to interviews with nearly two dozen chief executives, would-be chief executives, headhunters, business school deans and human resources professionals.
What they say: Women are often seen as dependable, less often as visionary. Women tend to be less comfortable with self-promotion — and more likely to be criticized when they do grab the spotlight. Men remain threatened by assertive women. Most women are not socialized to be unapologetically competitive. Some women get discouraged and drop out along the way. And many are disproportionately penalized for stumbles.
“For years I thought it was a pipeline question,” said Julie Daum, who has led efforts to recruit women for corporate boards at Spencer Stuart. “But it’s not — I’ve been watching the pipeline for 25 years. There is real bias, and without the ability to shine a light on it and really measure it, I don’t think anything’s going to change. Ultimately at the top of an organization there are fewer and fewer spots, and if you can eliminate an entire class of people, it makes it easier.”
Jan Fields worked her way from crew member at a McDonald’s restaurant to become president of McDonald’s USA, the No. 2 position at the company. She was fired in 2012, blamed for the first monthly drop in profits since 2003 during a strategic push for higher prices. From her perspective, she was making bold changes necessary for the company’s survival; McDonald’s has struggled in recent years amid increasing consumer consciousness about health.
She’s blunt about the life of a woman near the top.
“You’re the only woman,” she said. “It’s very lonely. I was at a high level playing in a golf foursome with all high-level men. One said, ‘I didn’t know you knew how to play.’ I said, ‘You never asked me.’ I never drank with them. I never tried to be one of the guys. I spent more energy on performance.”
In the end, she said, she won over many of the men. “The men along the way, they were extremely jealous and competitive,” she said. “It didn’t really last that long because they saw my production, and when they did start to work for me, they realized, ‘She was not that bad.’ ”
Like many women who became senior executives, she said she rose fastest and most smoothly when she was measured by the straightforward metric of profits. “It’s really all about money,” she said. “I always had to do better than anybody else to be considered equal. I ran great restaurants, had great profits and had the most successful people working for me.”
One handicap to becoming the chief executive, she said, was her own choice not to work overseas. “I thought so many of the countries we were going into were so against women,” she said. “I thought, I don’t need that.”
But after three years in the No. 2 spot, she and her boss disagreed about strategy. She pushed hard for changes, as she said many women in her place have done. “That’s how come I’m gone,” she said.
When women act forcefully, research suggests, men are more likely to react badly. A Lean In/McKinsey & Company survey in 2016 of 132 companies and 34,000 employees found that women who negotiated for promotions were 30 percent more likely than men to be labeled intimidating, bossy or aggressive.
Another executive spent 30 years in Fortune 500 companies, rising to the C-suite, the pool from which the next chief executive may be chosen. She described her experience in detail but insisted on anonymity because she has a settlement agreement with the company and remains friendly with her former boss. She gained a reputation for finding growth where others had not, often doubling the revenue of her divisions.
She was seen as a possible successor to the chief executive, but she said she was unprepared for corporate politics at the very top. “Before heading to the C-suite, I didn’t feel I was handicapped at all,” she said, echoing conversations with many other women. But the next rungs of the ladder depend not only on results but also on prevailing in an environment where everyone is competing for a chance at the top job.
“I got a guy his C-suite job,” she recalled. “I’m sitting there at the C-suite table and he takes a massive swipe at me on my business: ‘She’s not doing this right.’ I go down the hall, and I go to my friend and say, ‘What the hell just happened?’ And she said, ‘Did you forget the boys play a 24/7 game of dodge ball? You just walked into the gym. You whip the ball, and if it happens to knock somebody on the head, so what?’ And my husband said, ‘Why the hell did you help him get his job two years ago?’ ”
Her turning point came when she was outmaneuvered by male colleagues during a corporate reorganization. Believing she was not going to rise further, she asked for an exit package.
Looking back, she is convinced that being a woman hurt her. “I rewrote the entire strategy for the company, doubled its share price,” she said. “We had a little bit of a dip. All of the guys had missed their numbers more. There’s a guy positioning himself as the successor. He hasn’t made his number in seven years. He’s tall and good looking and hangs around the right circles.”
She drew an unwelcome conclusion. “Women are prey,” she said. “They can smell it in the water, that women are not going to play the same game. Those men think, ‘If I kick her, she’s not going to kick back, but the men will. So I’ll go after her.’ It’s keeping women in their place. I truly believe that.”
Such experiences resonate even with women who did rise to the top job. “We are never taught to fight for ourselves,” said Ellen Kullman, the former chief executive of DuPont. “I think we tend to be brought up thinking that life’s fair, that you thrive and deliver, and the rest will take care of itself. It actually does work for most of your career. It doesn’t work for that last couple of steps.”
Ms. Kullman withstood a challenge from an activist investor but then decided to resign in 2015, telling Fortune that she concluded she had become a target and “was getting in the way of the future of the company.”
Sally Blount, dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern and the only woman to lead a top 10 business school, noted that data predicts that half or more of the women who earn an M.B.A. this year will drop out of the full-time work force within a decade. The reasons range from family conflicts to placing less inherent value on position or money. That accounts in part for the low number of women who do reach the very top job, because fewer remain in the pipeline. Yet even those women who stay and reach the C-suite are more likely than men to be overlooked, Ms. Blount said.
“Getting looked over is incredibly painful, particularly when you’re not sure why after all these years,” she said. “I used to love the word ‘gravitas.’ I now think it’s male code for ‘not like us’ at the highest levels.”
The parallels with politics are striking. Research in both fields, including some conducted after Mrs. Clinton’s loss, has shown it’s harder for assertive, ambitious women to be seen as likable, and easier to conclude they lack some intangible, ill-defined quality of leadership.
In a Korn Ferry survey in April of 786 male and female senior executives, 43 percent said they thought that continued bias against women as chief executives was the primary reason more women did not make it to the top in their own companies — and 33 percent thought women in their firms were not given sufficient opportunities to become leaders.
At DuPont, Ms. Kullman said, she found that men were being promoted within two years, women in three. “It wasn’t as overt as, ‘She’s too aggressive,’ ” she said. “It came down more to, ‘We’re not sure she’s ready for that job.’ ”
As Wendy Cai-Lee, a banker now running her own investment firm, put it, if she wrote a book about women in business, the title would be “Dependable Back-Up.”
The Lean In survey shows a pervasive sense among women that they face structural disadvantages: They are less likely than men to believe they will be able to participate in meetings, receive challenging assignments or find their contributions valued. The bleakest perceptions are from minority women; only 29 percent of black women think the best opportunities at their companies go to the most deserving employees, compared with 47 percent of white women.
Some men see the competition in zero-sum terms. One corporate recruiter described a conversation with a male client seeking an additional board post. “He said, ‘I know all the seats are going to women, and I don’t stand a chance,’ ” the recruiter recalled. “I said, ‘70 percent of the seats go to white men.’ ”
Yet many women work in companies with public commitments to diversity and clear policies against discrimination, with many men who sincerely believe they want women to advance.
That makes many of the subtler ways women encounter bias more pernicious than blatant discrimination, a Harvard Business Review meta-analysis found.
Many women, accomplished as they are, don’t feel the same sense of innate confidence as their male peers. Gerri Elliott, a former senior executive at Juniper Networks (who said she did not personally encounter bias), recounts a story related by a colleague: A presenter asked a group of men and women whether anyone had expertise in breast-feeding. A man raised his hand. He had watched his wife for three months. The women in the crowd, mothers among them, didn’t come forward as experts.
Shelley Diamond rose to chief client officer at Young & Rubicam after running its New York office and leading several key worldwide accounts. Early in her career, she said, “My biggest Achilles’ heel was my own confidence in myself and my ability to accomplish a task that seemed giant and daunting and scary.”
But she and other women describe a culture in which men sometimes feel hesitant to give women honest but harsh feedback, which can be necessary for them to ascend, because they fear women may react emotionally.
Dina Dublon, who retired in 2004 as chief financial officer of JPMorgan Chase, said male colleagues sometimes told her they were reluctant to have dinner or drinks with female subordinates — important bonding activities in the corporate world — because it might be seen as flirtatious.
The challenge for women is how to enter into the intangible but crucial circle of male camaraderie. “Once you get to the top of the company, in most cases, you are dealing with a male kingdom,” she said. “For as long as we are the minority group, it is much more about our capacity to adjust to them than their capacity to open up to us. I don’t think it’s about fairness. It is narrow-minded and ineffective, but human.”
The widespread concern in business circles about the slow progress of women to the top has spawned a virtual cottage industry of recent initiatives, from Paradigm for Parity, of which Ms. Kullman is a co-chairwoman, to 100×25, a Rockefeller Foundation initiative aiming for 100 female chief executives in the Fortune 500 by 2025. That number now stands at 32 — an all-time high and spurt from last year, when there were 21.
Pledges may be welcome, but consequences must follow, said Deborah Gillis, president and chief executive of Catalyst, which pushes for women’s advancement in business. She suggests withholding bonuses if leaders do not promote enough women or minorities and increasing bonuses if they do.
In recounting their experiences, some women were philosophical; several swung between barely suppressed fury and bouts of self-blame. Our interviews were long and sometimes wrenching. As a former senior executive myself, I found that some of what they described resonated.
Tracing what role gender played in any decision is often elusive. These women were high achievers, accustomed to knocking down barriers, not running up against them. There’s seldom one reason someone else wins out, making the dissection of any outcome all the more painful and perplexing.
Yes, there are men who truly want women to succeed. Yes, businesses understand that a changing customer base means they fail to diversify at their peril. No one wants to give in to defeatism. But the long path to the top, and the loneliness at the summit, are forcing a reckoning.
For her part, Mrs. Clinton is writing a book and speaking out more acidly than she allowed herself on the campaign trail. “Certainly, misogyny played a role” in her defeat, she told a rapt, partisan crowd at the Women in the World summit meeting in April. She described what she saw as the thought bubble among some voters for President Trump: “He looks like somebody who’s been president before.”
The fury and revulsion aimed at Mrs. Clinton — as well as the more open misogyny in some quarters in the wake of the election — has led many women to question whether they’ve underestimated a visceral recoil against women taking power in any arena.
Many fear they already know the answer.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the 100×25 project. It is a Rockefeller Foundation initiative, not a partnership between the foundation and Korn Ferry.