The Real Reason Women Are Succeeding

Let’s stop thinking successful women leaders were given an extra boost, says Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr. Studies show they just worked a lot harder.

At a time when the world needs strong leadership, it’s all hands on deck. Yet data shows that women continue to be an underleveraged resource. In this regular column, J. Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, will explore the intersection of career, relationships, and gender and the impact on families, organizations, and society.

Like so many people, my family is obsessed with the popular musical Hamilton. We’ve memorized the lyrics, playing the soundtrack on the way to soccer practice, while we clean our house, and on road trips. The up-from-the-bootstraps story of this American founding father—a lower-class orphan, immigrant survivor—is inspiring and resonant for anyone who succeeds by “working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.”

Society has tried to balance out the uneven playing field crafted by implicit bias, systemic -isms, and unequal starting places. School bussing, affirmative action, and quotas are all designed to increase equity. But one blowback to this correction is the perception that the people on the receiving end are beneficiaries of charity, undeserving, of lower caliber, and are taking up the spot of someone else who should rightfully be there. There is a feeling that there are two standards: one for people who don’t need a boost, and a lower standard for people of protected classes—women and minorities who need an exception made for them if they are to achieve the same position.

Research is beginning to show that there are, in fact, two standards. But in this case, it’s the old double standard. In more detail than before, data are pointing to how women have simply had to work a lot harder—and a lot longer—to get to the same position as men.

Economists, who notoriously pride themselves on their objectivity and rationality, have recently undertaken a review of bias in their field. Only one in five tenure-track economics professors is a woman, even though a third of first-year doctoral students are women (a dwindling pipeline that mirrors the corporate leadership pipeline). Their research shows a pattern of bias and the barriers women face in publishing and getting tenure; evidence included a gender-blind review of writing showing that even when women’s writing was 6% clearer, the papers languished in peer review six months longer on average. Another study found that women get less credit than men when they co-author peer-reviewed papers, based on the degree to which the paper affects their chances of getting tenure. When a man is a co-author, it counts toward tenure requirements; when a woman is a co-author it’s cause for questioning whether she contributed in a meaningful way.

In Korn Ferry’s landmark “Women CEOs Speak” study, where the top 57 female CEOs were interviewed, we noted that women essentially did one extra lap around the track before landing a CEO position. On average, women CEOs are four years older and have held more senior positions in more diverse settings across industry and function when they are placed in their first CEO post. In the US, when a woman is placed in the CEO role, the process takes 30% longer than when a man is placed. Additionally, when we compared executive assessment scores of women CEOs to our best-in-class CEO benchmark, women scored at or above the benchmark on 17 out of 20 traits—indicating that the group of women CEOs are at the 99th percentile of what we would look for in CEOs. The scrutiny is thorough, the standards are high, and the women who break through are exceptional.

For logic to prevail, we need to ask ourselves, why do we think women who ascend have received an unfair boost? The evidence suggests that women who make it recognize the higher standard and rise up to meet it (or exceed it), facing and blowing through bias. In fact, as Hamilton determined, “It’s the only way to rise up!”