Following the movements of C-suite women has become a spectator sport. When former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz received her now infamous phone call, professional women started counting the number of females they knew who still occupied the top ranks.
"Who is left in technology?" asked one panicked participant at a recent networking event for women in digital media. We almost need female CEO trading cards to keep track.
There's good reason to follow the women who successfully made it to the top echelons of companies – they act as necessary role models for the rest of us. But dwelling on numbers suggests there are dark forces at work keeping women down, whereas the explanation may lie with women themselves.
After years of navigating the corporate world, some women come to realize that their values are not in sync with striving for the C-suite. They ask themselves, "Do I really want to be CEO?" Often, the answer is no.
Carey-Ann Oestreicher hit her stride as a corporate executive by the age of 28. By her early 30s, she was vice-president of business development and communications in the financial services industry, earning herself a nomination for Canada's Most Powerful 100 Women Award. After the birth of her second child, however, she realized her role no longer suited her personal values and left to launch her own career-development firm.
"Independence is essential in my work life," Ms. Oestreicher explains. "Having the freedom to control my own schedule is an amazing benefit. Although I work harder as a business owner than I ever have it my life, I love every minute of it."
The common explanation for the absence of women at the top – that they bow out of the work force to raise families and return to their careers at a much diminished level – feels simplistic. Some women simply come to the realization that their goals have changed.
"Many educated women don't just want to toe the party line," says psychologist Susan Pinker, author of The Sexual Paradox and a Globe and Mail columnist. She adds that men are more likely to put their head down and keep their eye on the prize, while women bristle in an environment that they may find unsupportive or unfulfilling.
"I could be saving a company $10-million," says Sara Cohen, a former Bay Street lawyer. Stuck in a job she found intellectually challenging but not personally fulfilling, she launched her own fertility law practice after the birth of her son. "I learned a lot as a Bay Street associate, but there is something exciting and empowering about building yourself."
Mulling the absence of female leaders never ceases to engage (or enrage) women in business. Women nearly match men in Canada's labour force yet less than half a per cent hold senior management positions, according to the Conference Board of Canada. The proportion of women in those roles has changed little in the past 20 years.
While some women, including Ms. Oestreicher and Ms. Cohen, leave the corporate world to start their own companies, others remain, baffled by their lack of advancement. Although sexism surely persists in some work environments, a more subtle form of discrimination – women's own beliefs – may be what's really hindering their progress, research suggests.
A recent study by McKinsey notes that while several barriers to female advancement exist, such as a lack of role models and the exclusion from informal networks, the most powerful barrier is entrenched attitudes. Many women have self-limiting beliefs, including the notion that they need more skills to apply for a top job or must wait to be asked.
How women self-identify can be out of sync with the characteristics of a high-level managerial role, says Dr. Ronald Burke, a professor of organizational behaviours at the Schulich School of Business. Gender stereotypes and a lack of mentors contribute to this disconnect, creating an environment where employees, when they think of a manager, picture a man, he says.
The double-whammy here is that women hold this view as well.
Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success.