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Looking through the glass ceiling: Symposium examines state of women’s advancement

Associate professor Alicia Sasser Modestino, a labor market expert in Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities speaks during a symposium at Northeastern on Friday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

How far have women advanced in the fields of leadership, entrepreneurship, and public policy? It’s a question that a half-day symposium at Northeastern, co-organized by professors Alicia Sasser Modestino and Jamie Ladge, sought to answer Friday. The answer, based on presentations by a wide-ranging group of stakeholders, seems to be that while progress has certainly been made, there’s still a long way to go.

The symposium, held during Women’s History Month, convened more than a dozen researchers, entrepreneurs, and policymakers whose work focuses on the state of female advancement across disciplines. Journalist Katie Johnston, who covers workplace and income equality for The Boston Globe, moderated the event.

Researchers who study female entrepreneurship as well as women entrepreneurs themselves identified significant barriers and untapped opportunities that are holding women back from advancing on their own. Researchers and female CEOs examined who is responsible for establishing a work-life balance and identified avenues for employers to advance the talent pipeline. And scholars and policymakers discussed the extent to which public policy plays a role in leveling the playing field.

Entrepreneurship

Kim Eddleston, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation in Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, and Gary Powell, management professor at the University of Connecticut School of Business, have studied the differences between male and female entrepreneurs. While they cautioned that their findings are broad and can’t be applied to every individual, Eddleston and Powell said that women and men define success very differently.

Largely, men aspire to make money, Powell said, while women “create their own definition of success, then find their own way of meeting that definition.”

While at first blush it may seem that “women are just setting the bar lower for themselves,” Powell explained that the research suggests that men and women simply derive satisfaction from different places.

This creates a wide rift in overall life satisfaction, Powell said. While the two groups achieve their own measures of success fairly equally, women tend to be happier with theirs.

“It begs the question, ‘Who’s better off—someone who goes out and meets objective success standards but isn’t necessarily satisfied with it, or someone who’s satisfied with what they’ve done?’” Powell asked.

“The pace of social change is glacial. Waiting for pay equality to evolve on its own is costly to women, their families, and the economy.”

Alicia Sasser Modestino Associate professor of public policy, and urban affairs and economics; associate director of the Dukakis Center

Still, women face significant challenges elsewhere in business. Sarah Merion, DMSB’11, founder of EthosWell—a company that connects people to alternative medicine providers—said she’s encountered roadblocks when trying to secure investment capital.

“I can’t necessarily say that being a woman has prevented me from getting the banks to sign on, but I certainly don’t think it’s helped me,” she said. “What’s frustrating right now is that I have everything ready to press the gas but can’t without that capital.”

Leadership

Ellen Kossek, a professor of management at Purdue University, highlighted the issue with a few stark statistics.

While women are earning roughly 60 percent of graduate degrees conferred in the U.S., they represent only 14.6 percent of CEOs, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500-company CEOs, Kossek said.

Myriad factors, including gender bias, career preference (women self-selecting or opting out of certain professions), and work-life inequality contribute to the phenomenon, Kossek said.

“How do we change organizations not only to get rid of the bad things, but implement good practices as well?” she asked. “It’s not enough to prevent bias—we have to move the needle to value what women bring to the table.”

Further layers motivating the lack of female leadership include something Jamie Ladge, associate professor of management and organizational development in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, calls the “perpetual dichotomy.”

“As women, we have the feeling that we need to be ideal workers,” she said, “but that doesn’t mesh with being ideal parents, something else we feel we should be.”

Fueling this is a stigma of working mothers “who are often seen as warm but not competent,” Ladge said.

“It’s not enough to prevent bias—we have to move the needle to value what women bring to the table.”

Ellen Kossek Professor of management at Purdue University

So, what’s there to do? Ladge laid out a playbook that includes better supporting working mothers and ensuring senior leaders are setting a good example of work-life balance.

Further, she noted, “Millennials view their career and life as one in the same, in terms of career success. This may also be able to help drive the change.”

Public policy

Gender disparities in general and the gender wage gap in particular are issues that have risen to the fore in recent years and become lightning rods during the most recent presidential election. In April 2014, then-President Barack Obama signed two executive measures intended to help close longstanding pay disparities between men and women. He and others noted that typically women make 77 cents for every dollar men make.

Associate professor Alicia Sasser Modestino, a labor market expert in Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities, explained Friday that there are external factors other than gender alone, including education, that impact this disparity. Controlling for all those factors, the pay gap is closer to 92 cents for every dollar, she said.

“You might not think that 8 cents seems like a lot, but that’s controlling for every factor we could find,” she said. “Despite all that, there is still a disparity.”

This would indicate that “The remaining gender gap in pay stems more from societal norms than overt discrimination,” Modestino said.

And while it may seem like “we need a social revolution rather than legislation,” Modestino cautioned that “the pace of social change is glacial.

“Waiting for pay equality to evolve on its own is costly to women, their families, and the economy,” she said.

Others posited that while legislation may not solve the problem on its own, its implementation can help nudge those societal norms in a more equal direction.

Megan Costello, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement for the City of Boston, said she and Mayor Martin J. Walsh consider “how we can use public policy to influence culture” when drafting policies.

“We’re trying to change the culture, change human behavior,” she said.