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Breaking the Glass Ceiling

February 10, 2014

Women now are well represented across graduate and professional schools. Still troubling, however, is the relative difficulty women have in attaining the top positions in corporations and high finance, said two leading economists who spoke at a Chicago Booth-sponsored panel discussion in Davos, Switzerland, on January 24. 

Marianne Bertrand, Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, said most top positions in finance and business require long hours, a lot of traveling, and huge penalties for both men and women if they take time off the fast track. Given that framework, Bertrand explained that traditional domestic concerns likely impede the progress of many women.

“Despite some changes, it’s still true today that women are disproportionately in charge of everything that has to do with home activities, particularly childrearing,” Bertrand said at the panel discussion, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling.” “These jobs in finance and business are not easily combined with a flexible schedule of taking time off.” Bertrand’s recent research has focused on women in the workplace and how they balance family pressures.

Bertrand was joined by Gertrude Tumpel-Gugerell, an Austrian economist, former executive board member for the European Central Bank, and chairwoman, Supervisory Board of Commerzbank AG, positions that have been rarely held by women.

The session was moderated by Gillian Tett, a British author and award-winning journalist for the Financial Times. The discussion at the Kirchner Museum Davos attracted about 100 guests, most of whom were attending World Economic Forum sessions. The panel was introduced by Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, and Booth dean Sunil Kumar, George Pratt Shultz Professor of Operations Management.

“We only need to look around the room today, or look at sessions in Congress, to realize that in spite of all our advancements, when it comes to the top echelons of who’s running companies, who’s running businesses, running universities, it’s still a very male-dominated world,” Tett said in her opening remarks.

Bertrand and Tumpel-Gugerell stressed that educational paths, hiring quotas, and mentoring programs for women each play a vital role in shifting the current male-centric business world.

“In education today, we have roughly 50 percent women in law school, 50 percent of medical students are women, and business school is not that far behind—around 40 to 45 percent are women,” Bertrand said. “A century ago, it was easy to explain why there were so few women at the top. Women simply didn’t match men in terms of education. But that’s not the case now. There’s something going on after women reach the labor market.”

Tumpel-Gugerell offered recruitment bias as one explanation: “I’ve sat on many recruitment panels, and even with an elaborate process, men tend to recruit candidates who are similar to them—they feel that they will assimilate better.”

Though hiring quotas once were considered by both Tumpel-Gugerell and Tett to be unnecessary, both women see them as useful tools today.

“When I was young, I was against quotas,” said Tumpel-Gugerell. “I was confident that we would make it on our own. But many years later, we see that not so much was achieved compared to our expectations.”—Susan Guibert