Response to Recent Study: “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work”

I read a recent study called, “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work”[i], which shows the disparity between women and men at the C-suite level (top executives e.g. CEO, COO, CIO etc…) in top Fortune 500 companies. This type of research, while well-intentioned, is generally misguided and plagued with Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation Bias Definition:

“The confirmation bias refers to the tendency to selectively search for and consider information that confirms one’s beliefs.”[ii]


“Confirmation bias, also called myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses while giving disproportionately less attention to information that contradicts it.[Note 1][1] It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.”[iii]

When I say that these studies typically present confirmation bias I am not saying that these types of studies are not able to be helpful with providing information. I am saying, however, that the authors are intending to show something that the data does not necessarily show by forcing what they think the outcome should be as opposed to what the raw data says. Some would argue that the whole point of a study involving surveys is to show results and those results will invariably support at least one presupposition/hypothesis. Since it is impossible to avoid presuppositions and biases, we cannot fault the author of the study. This is true, however, in this situation, the authors of the study seem to be cherry-picking data that might help to promote their view of how the world works and their presuppositions are causing their conclusions drawn to miss out on important counter-evidence. Basically, the authors are framing the question wrong.

Author’s Assumptions:

Their question is: “why aren’t there as many women as men in C-suite titles?” and “How can we get the equal number of women in that level?” and they are assuming: 1) that it is morally imperative and economically necessary that the male-female ratio at the top of each Fortune 500 company should be 1:1, 2) that all women should desire to reach that level in an organization, 3) that every industry and business would necessarily benefit from this ratio, 4) that diversity of gender is as desirable as thought diversity, and 5) that thought diversity is equivalent to gender diversity in every situation.

The above list of assumptions is not overtly stated in the study but is implied. The same assumptions are used in studies that show data related to the so-called “wage-gap” between men and women. The wage-gap usually looks directly at the data and income levels of men vs. women without regard to current trends that show the levels are evening and they ignore relevant data regarding women’s choices of career path including sector and work-life balance factors[iv]. Let’s look at some examples from the report show what the authors are looking to achieve.


These are taken directly from:

  • Exhibit 4 of the study shows that women were less likely than men to desire to move to the next level in the organization or move into the C-suite level. This stat accounts for surveys of only 12 companies of the 60 that were involved in the study.  These 12 organizations were handpicked because they were, according to the report, favorable organizations for females and gender diversity.  What this shows is that, even females in organizations that are giving them extra opportunity for career growth, females still don’t necessarily desire/aspire for the type of professional “growth” that the study seems to want them to aspire to. I believe the numbers would have been even less favorable (in the eyes of the study creators) if the range of organizations and company size was expanded.  The fact that the study focuses on only 12 of 60 total Fortune 500 companies minimizes a diverse range of data from which to draw and skews the survey results to be unrepresentative and inadequate sample of all professional women.
  • The study reports that last year they identified four barriers to women’s advancement: 1) structural obstacles, 2) lifestyle choices, 3) institutional mind-sets, and 4) individual mind-sets. According to the study, leadership teams in the organizations have been “working hard” to remove them!
    • A choice to not advance should not be considered a barrier to women’s advancement because the woman, of her own will, placed the barrier there.  So “life-style Choices” and “Individual Mind-sets” should be struck from this list as they effect both men and woman alike.
  • The study points out that employees in “Line jobs” (front line– jobs related to delivering products and services e.g. Sales, Marketing, Customer service)[v] are more likely to be promoted beyond the middle management positions to the upper tiers of the organizations poled. This, however, negatively impacts and discriminates against female employees, as they tend to choose “Staff jobs” over line jobs more frequently then men the further they get in their careers. Staff jobs consist of more “behind the scenes” type positions including Legal, accounting, HR, and IT[vi]. The study cites the reason for this career move being, “… as women form families, staff jobs look more appealing; well-intentioned leaders often do not even ask mothers to consider a tough assignment. And women know that line jobs carry greater pressure. The more issues like this we explored, the more we found the four barriers working in combination to make the problem impenetrable. Our research underscores how entrenched they are…”[vii]
    • Again the authors of the study assume to know what is best for women and what is best for raising a family. It is as if they are telling a potential mother, “listen, you need to do what is right for you and your career, don’t worry about raising your child. Daycare is a good option for many professional women and children do NOT benefit from having their mother around when they are very young.” This is not to mention the fact that this entire study disregards any influence from a potential father and husband of the professional female employee. For many married couples, the marriage is more important than either individual in that the couple will make decisions based upon how the marriage is affected. This study seems do not care if women are married when they start a family or if the husband has a say in the career choices of his wife.
  • Yet another example of the authors downplaying a the importance of a woman’s role of mother is when they say, “But too many women don’t want to reach the top. Many love what they do and believe they are making a difference where they are—remember, only 41 percent of the 200 successful women we interviewed said they aspired to join the C-suite.”[viii] They continues, “If corporate leaders commit to changes that inspire more top women to stay the course through years of family responsibilities and competing interests, then all women and men benefit.”[ix]
    • I think it is a pretty bold assertion to say that “too many” women don’t want to reach the top. This is just saying that, in the authors opinion, more women (including mothers with families) should ignore their motherly instinct to spend more time raising their young children and focus on what really matters, their career (and proud feminists everywhere). They know its hard but when you start a family the best thing you can do is focus on career because those are your best career building years too and should take precedent over a husband and children. Obviously.

Other Observations:

  • From a business standpoint:
    • Gender diversity should NOT be the singular priority of any publicly traded company. It is admitted in the report that some of the surveyed companies do not see it as a priority, however the authors seem to think that promoting women to the very top should be the number 1 priority embraced by leaders of the organization. Thought diversity, as mentioned in the study, can be a priority as it has been proven to help organizations avoid becoming stagnant. It also drives innovation and creativity. The opposite of thought diversity can be the idea of Groupthink, where everyone agrees and none question leadership’s assumptions or reasoning.  This being said, if an organization wishes to stay stagnant, their bottom line might see negative consequences because of it.  Also, women might not be attracted to an organization that lacks thought diversity and choose not to apply there, which would lessen the likelihood of that organization attracting top female talent.  Thought diversity is blind to gender and treats each individual as a potential value added regardless of gender.  The study talks about how gender diversity and thought diversity are both equally desirable for business success. In business, all that matters is what will allow the organization success. If that means more women, so be it! What the authors are proposing is more along the political and social engineering lines than what matters to business.
      • Businesses strive to provide the most competitive products and services to the maximum number of consumers (consumers are both men and women). Publicly traded organizations should have 1 priority and that is to create growth and profit for their investors (investors include both men and women) growth is gender neutral.


As is apparent from from the quotes and data presented above, the authors of this study clearly had an agenda to push. They studied an unrepresentative sample with a lack of diversity regarding organizational sector and size. They hand picked 12 of the 60 organizations that had the best diversity plans for women to prove their points (even though this did not work). They disregarded family oriented professional women and consider their free choices “barriers” to career growth.  They presume to know what is best for women and their families.  The idea of a husband as a vital decision maker or even a factor in the woman’s career choices are not even considered rendering the nuclear family obsolete.

Women are strong and smart enough to know what is best for them and their family (or future family).  However, this type of study can be deceptive and can serve as a social script with the intent of persuading young women that the best and greatest possible thing they can do is to focus on themselves and on a career. The whole idea of a husband, children, and home are antiquated and not for the modern woman.  If a woman wants to pursue a career in something that she loves, she should and can. However, if she also wants to pause her career to raise her children, what could be a more noble reason to do so?






[iv] AND


[vi] Ibid.


[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.


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