The C-Suite Was Built for Men. Time for Something New.

Women earn the majority of college degrees. But they are underrepresented in the C-suite. What does that say about the C-suite? Two experts weigh in.

portrait of Meg Embry
by Meg Embry

Published on June 29, 2022

Edited by Jennifer Cuellar
Share this Article
The C-Suite Was Built for Men. Time for Something New.
Image Credit: Shannon Fagan / The Image Bank / Getty Images


We know that women are some of the most educated people in the United States: According to the Council of Graduate Schools, women make up nearly 60% of all graduate school enrollments and earn over 53% of all doctoral degrees.

We know that women are slowly approaching parity with men in MBA programs: In 2021, Time reported that women comprised over 40% of MBA enrollments.

{{ ad_disclosure }}

Ready to start your journey?

We know that the majority of Americans believe women have what it takes to make good leaders.

And we know that women leaders drive impressive business results: bigger share price gains, higher profits, and stronger revenue growth.

In spite of all that, only 8.1% of Fortune 500 executives were women in 2021.

What gives? What is it about the C-suite that is keeping women out?

We Asked the Experts

We spoke to two experts who have been investigating this question for years.

Portrait of Professor Corinne Post

Professor Corinne Post

Professor Corinne Post holds the Fred J. Springer endowed chair in business leadership and is professor of management at the Villanova School of Business. Post has over 20 years of research in workplace diversity and organization management.

Her work has been featured in Forbes, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.


Portrait of Dr. Tracy Brower

Dr. Tracy Brower

Dr. Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and the workplace. She is a two-time author and the vice president of workplace insights with Steelcase.

She is also a contributor for Forbes and Fast Company. Her work has been featured in numerous global publications, including TedX and The Wall Street Journal.

Here's what they think is wrong with the C-suite.

The Look of a Leader

The biggest and most intractable issue facing women trying to get into the C-suite is that the executive level continues to be a holdout for masculine leadership norms, Post said.

"Because so few women have infiltrated the top ranks, there have been fewer opportunities to influence those norms. Masculinity culture is more intense at the top."

"Masculinity culture is more intense at the top."

— Professor Corinne Post, The Fred J. Springer Endowed Chair in Business Leadership and Professor of Management at Villanova School of Business

Masculinity norms in the workplace affect women in big and small ways.

"Like how office temperatures are set to optimize the comfort and performance of male biology," laughed Post. "I have been cold my entire professional life."

More importantly, those norms impact how we conceptualize leadership. "We take for granted that a leader should look, speak, and behave in a certain way. We are dogmatic in our assumption that decisive, confident leaders are the best leaders," said Post.

"But women are often what we call ambivalent leaders: They have a greater openness to other perspectives and are more willing to change their minds. Ambivalent leaders do a much better job of extracting information from people. That leads to better decision-making and better outcomes. But anything outside the decisive-leader norm is perceived as weak."

Our mental shortcuts for "leaders" excludes women from consideration at every stage of the pipeline, said Post. "If you don't look like a leader, you won't be treated like one."

Want to Be a C-Suite Bigwig? You're Going to Need a Wife

According to Quartz, 70% of the top male earners in the U.S. have stay-at-home spouses. It's the secret to their success.

"Corporate spaces have long been populated by men who could rely on a wife at home to take care of everything. Our entire workplace culture is built on the assumption that someone else is handling all the domestic engineering and unpaid labor," said Post.

"As a result, the C-suite –– and the path that leads to it –– reflects the way life is arranged for men, who overwhelmingly benefit from this kind of intense career support."

According to a 2017 article in Psychology, top executive roles overwhelmingly embrace a "total commitment model" of work that requires long hours, out-of-hours social activities, travel, and constant availability.

It's an unsustainable model for even the highest-performing women, who continue to bear an unequal burden of housework and childcare at home.

"That's why I say a man who has almost made it to the C-suite is actually almost there. But a woman who is 'almost there' is just barely holding on," Brower said. "It's nearly impossible to find women in senior positions who have children under the age of 18. The few who do? They all have full-time, stay-at-home husbands."

"It's nearly impossible to find women in senior positions who have children under the age of 18. The few who do? They all have full-time, stay-at-home husbands."

— Dr. Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRW

We Treat Women's Commitment Like Pie

Another reason women can't get a foot through the C-suite door? Corporations view women's commitment as a finite resource. There are only so many slices in that pie.

We've mentioned this before: when a woman becomes a mother, she is perceived as less committed to her work. How could she ever succeed in an executive role if she is feeding half of her commitment pie to a new baby? Impossible: better not to promote her.

Conversely, when a man becomes a father, he is perceived as more committed to his work. A Qualtrics survey found that during the pandemic, 34% of fathers who worked from home received a promotion, while only 9% of mothers did. Forget the pie: Men get to have their cake and eat it, too.

"It just makes no sense," said Brower. "Women can be deeply committed to more than one meaningful thing at a time. We've been doing it forever. There's more than enough commitment to go around."

Women Get All the Wrong Good Jobs

Even when women do manage to pull themselves up the corporate ladder, they still "won't gain equal access to those last couple of rungs that would get them over the top into the C-suite," said Post.

Instead, they're getting stuck in all the wrong good jobs. In "Power and Pay in the C-Suite," researchers note that women disproportionately end up in lower-compensated "pink-collar" C-suite roles that don't lead to the top.

According to a Stanford research article:

As The Wall Street Journal puts it: "The barrier isn't only a glass ceiling at the very top, but also an invisible wall that sidelines women from the kinds of roles that have been traditional stepping stones to the CEO position."

Some Good News

"Companies have been making noise about C-suite diversity for years now," said Post. "And things are changing, slowly. Not necessarily because we are becoming more enlightened but because the market is demanding something new."

"And things are changing, slowly. Not necessarily because we are becoming more enlightened but because the market is demanding something new."

— Professor Corinne Post, The Fred J. Springer Endowed Chair in Business Leadership and Professor of Management at Villanova School of Business

Communication, information-gathering, emotional intelligence, and relationship-building are at a high premium in a globalized economy where collaboration is becoming the new competition.

"How we do business is changing," said Post. "As the valuable leadership traits women bring to the table continue to meet the challenges of the times we are living through, I believe we will continue to see more diversity in the C-suite."

Brower agrees. "Until then, a big part of women getting to the C-suite will be choosing to work for companies that have the right culture. That sounds obvious, but it's true: Find companies that already have women in leadership, and your chances will be significantly better."

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare your school options.

View the most relevant school for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to find your college home.