Why Women Aren’t C.E.O.s, According to Women Who Almost Were

A year ago, dressed in suffragette white and addressing a cheering, weeping convention, Hillary Clinton stood for possibility. Now she is a reminder of the limits women continue to confront — in politics and beyond.

More than 40 years after women began pouring into the workplace, only a handful have made it all the way to the top of corporate America. The percentage of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies who are women just passed 6 percent, creeping up (and occasionally dropping back) at a glacial pace.

Why don’t more women get that No. 1 job?

Consider the experiences of the people who know best: Women who were in the running to become No. 1, but didn’t quite make it. The women who had to stop at No. 2.

What their stories show is that in business, as in politics, women who aspire to power evoke far more resistance, both overt and subtle, than they expected would be the case by now.

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.”

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