Catch-22 affects women who lead

By Jena McGregor The Washington Post

One of the long-offered explanations for why more women aren’t in leadership positions — but one day will be — is that women face a workplace version of Catch-22. Past research has shown that they are more likely to be hired and promoted into existing management jobs once a woman has already held a job at that level, breaking down the pre-existing barrier.

But what about when brand new management jobs are created, either because a company is growing, restructuring itself or changing its strategy? What kind of shot do women have at getting these posts?

The answer, according to recently published research by professors at the University of Arizona and McGill University, is that it depends on how many women already hold jobs at the top of that company. The number of newly created management jobs that are first filled by women increases with the number of female managers in the firm. This finding supports the idea that having more women in the pipeline begets even more women; that is, as long as the new jobs created for them aren’t too risky to yield success.

The study, published in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, examined management jobs at New York-based advertising agencies over a 13-year period in the 1980s and 1990s. The researchers chose to study advertising agencies because of the availability of the data, but also because of the industry’s unique characteristics.

The University of Arizona’s Joe Broschak and his co-author, Lisa Cohen, found that the greater the prevalence of women in management jobs within the agency, the greater number of new management jobs went to other women. Interestingly, the number of new jobs filled by men did not follow the same path. New management jobs created for men peaked when the proportion of female managers at the agency hit roughly a quarter, and then turned downward as the ratio of female managers continued upward.

Broschak’s explanation: 25 percent is the point where there are enough women in management jobs for men to start feeling threatened, but not enough to affect how many new jobs go to women. At that point, “firms create new job titles that they assign to men to preserve men’s status,” he says.

“Changing demographics can lead to conflict.”