Working Papers

If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You the Boss?

Explaining the Persistent Vertical Gender Gap in Management

Over the last four decades, women have made substantial inroads into management jobs. But most women are in lower- and middle-management jobs, and few are in top management jobs (Reskin and Ross 1992; Cohen, Broschak, and Haveman 1998; Carter and Silva 2010). This vertical gender gap occurs even among those with elite educational credentials. Female graduates of highly ranked MBA programs take lower-status jobs than their male counterparts, even after controlling for years of work experience, children living at home, industry, region, and aspirations to be senior executives (Carter and Silva 2010). Moreover, these female MBA graduates lag behind their male counterparts at all stages. This vertical gender gap in management has important implications. Most basically, because women are less likely than men to be in top management jobs, they tend to earn less than men and to have less formal authority than men.

Human capital theory (Mincer 1970; Becker 1975) predicts that women are less likely than men to be promoted to top management for three related reasons: women acquire fewer of the necessary educational credentials than men, women prefer different kinds of jobs than men, and women accumulate less of the required work experience than men. After discussing the impact of these individual differences on men’s and women’s advancement into the upper ranks of management, we argue that cultural schemas, specifically gender roles and gender norms, explain most of these gender differences.

Our analysis focuses on managers in the private sector because over four-fifths of the labor force works in the private sector (CPS 2010) and the most powerful and most highly compensated management jobs are in that sector. We analyze data on nationally representative samples, along with the results of published research, to reveal trends over the last four decades – when women began to enter the managerial workforce in large numbers.