There are only 18 female CEOs within the fortune 500. The number for the Russell 3000, is a bit better, at about 10 percent. Why are there so few women in senior leadership positions?
The typical answer usually references the time lost by many women during pregnancy and child rearing and their general greater involvement in the household. No doubt this explanation carries some weight to it, but there is another contributing factor that many understand but few want to talk about: women are often hired for their looks.
What does this have to do with the dearth of female leaders? Well it goes something like this. When it comes to junior or middle management positions, a women's looks, as opposed to her competency alone, play into whether or not she gets the job or promotion. So a woman of acceptable but not exceptional capability is selected, while a more competent woman is not.
At lower levels in an organization, it is easy to maintain the appearance that there is no discrimination going on. "Hey look, there are just as many women as there are men". But come time for promotion to senior, and eventually executive, positions, the pool of exceptional females grows thinner and thinner in comparison to the men, whose looks played less of a role in their initial hiring.
Several studies have showed a positive correlation between attractiveness and pay/employability. In my brief search, I was unable to find one that isolated the importance of looks of women vis-a-vis men, but (while unscientific) years of personally witnessing a more-or-less one-sided form of discrimination leads to me to believe there is indeed a difference.
When it comes to men, there seems to be something of a minimum standard of hygiene and presentability, which once met, makes appearances more-or-less irrelevant to a hiring decision. With women, it's less binary.
As a lawyer, I have heard a partner literally refer to an attractive new hire (one that he himself was involved in hiring) as a "nice pair of legs". This was in 2007, not 1950. One year later, the same partner spoke of how she was not cutting it. A year after that, around the time of promotions, she was let go.
One way to look at this situation is to say that she was unfairly discriminated against during the promotion decisions. But that is a very myopic way of looking at things. In reality, she was not qualified for the job. Literally hundreds of other women had applied, many of whom would have been more competent. The real injustice was not hiring one of them in the first place.
In no way am I suggesting that attractive women are necessarily incompetent. But I am saying that the greater emphasis on looks we place on women shrinks the pool of exceptional leaders we might get tomorrow.
When I started collecting my ideas for this article, the first female executives I could think of off-hand were Marissa Mayer (photo above), the CEO of Yahoo, and Belinda Stronach, the CEO Magna International (and probably the most famous female executive in Canada, where I live).
Is it a coincidence that they are both very attractive? Again, I am not questioning their qualifications, I am saying it says something about our priorities when even among the upper echelons of business, a women's looks still play into her notoriety in a way they do not for a man.