Why There Are So Few Women at the Top

By Margaret Heffernan

Ten years ago, when I was a CEO, women would come up to me to shake my hand; they had, they'd often say, never seen a female CEO in the flesh before. It was touching and odd, and I was confident it would soon be a thing of the past.

Now I'm not so sure. In 2009, everyone asked why there weren't many women at Davos -- and here we are in 2011 wondering exactly the same thing. Of the Fortune 1000, only 28 are led by women who continue to be absent in leadership roles in media, politics, science as well as my own field, high tech. With women taking the majority of graduate degrees, no one really believes there is a pipeline issue any more.

We all know there's still a problem and debate will continue to rage about why women's progress has stalled. But one of the reasons that is least discussed is universal: bias.

The Brain as Security Guard (or Why Peter Prefers Pepsi)

This is not about political correctness. It's about neurology. Quick lesson in how the brain works: imagine it is the security guard at your corporate headquarters. Lots of people flood in and not every single pass can be checked. Who gets in first and fastest? Those whom the guard has seen every day for the last five years. Familiarity is what the brain favors. The new and strange has a tough time gaining entrance.

This can apply to everything, important or trivial. We like people and products that share our initials. Carol is more likely to drink Coke while Peter prefers Pepsi. A meta-analysis of the most severe hurricanes between 1998 and 2005 showed that people were more likely to donate to relief funds if the hurricane's name shared their first initial: Kate and Katherine were more generous than, say, Zoe.

More importantly, we favor people who look like us. There's some evidence showing we pick partners whose noses are about the same length and whose eyes are about as far apart as our own. We may think that opposites attract - but, overwhelmingly, they don't get married. We marry, and we hire, people pretty much like ourselves.

Liking What's Like Us

We are our own norms and feel safer with what we know. So we favor employees who look like us too. That's why, hoping to create the very best team I could, my first experience of hiring resulted in three liberal arts graduates under 5′6 who all had birthdays in the first half of June: they were all like me. That might also explain why the Vienna Philharmonic has yet to hire a single non-Aryan musician.

Our preference for familiarity leaves us willfully blind: unable or unwilling to see talent when it does not look like us, sound like us, think like us. It feels fine. It just doesn't work very well. And, at heart, this is why, even if you don't care about social justice, diversity matters so much to business. Hire a bunch of people just like yourself and you get ideas like yours, thinking styles like yours, and networks full of people just like you. You will all get along, sharing the same blind spot.

But if we want a wider range of talent, we need to accept a wider idea of what success looks like.

(And you can test for your biases here.)

Related Links: