Why Women Have a Difficult Time Climbing the Corporate Ladder


2021 International Women’s Month has brought about an intense and fervid spirit for innovation and change, all the while celebrating female contributions to social, economic, and political advancements. However, after 100 years since legislation was passed allowing women increased employment opportunities, International Women’s Month brings to light a century of bigotry, harassment, and a diminishing of women in the corporate world.   


Thus, it begs the question: Despite having increased representation, resources, ethical regulations, as well as increased support from male counterparts, why do women still struggle to climb the corporate ladder? 


Recent studies show that the issue pervades sexism to even science. The National Center for Biotechnology Information found that the female voice is scientifically proven to be more difficult for a male brain to register. A 2019 study published in NeuroImage sought to answer why. Researchers found that there are major differences in the way male and female brains process voice sounds. Different brain regions are activated in men, depending on whether they are hearing a male or female voice. The vibration and number of sound waves in females voices make it harder for men to decipher what we are saying. When it comes to processing a woman’s voice, they use the more complex auditory part of the brain that processes music, not human voices. 


“In group settings, men are 75% more likely to speak up than women and when a woman does speak up, it’s statistically probable her male counterparts will either interrupt her or speak over her,” said Gina Rippon, an acclaimed neuroscientist and author of The Gendered Brain. “It’s not because they’re rude. It’s science. The female voice is scientifically proven to be more difficult for a male brain to register. What does this mean? It means in this world where men are bigger, stronger, faster, if you’re not ready to fight, the silence will kill you.”


This ugly truth manifests in the corporate world and oftentimes becomes a matter of survival. A study conducted by Stav Liv, a student at the Columbia University Journalism School, found that 64% of women in corporate industries face microaggressions, which include being mistaken for a much junior employee and having their judgement questioned. Thus, women attempt to mimic male traits in order to be in command and taken seriously.  


“In the past, women have been pushed to imitate those features to seem powerful in a room of men,” said sophomore Divya Khatri, the president of the Girl of Computer Science club. “A psychopath, Elizabeth Holmes, created a successful business and she lowered her voice in order to be taken more seriously because it’s male features that are defined as dominant.” 


This pattern of male features scientifically being in command permeates from professional platforms to even student life. Speaking while female has considerable disadvantages, which translates into numerous high school public speaking activities. 


“Sometimes it does feel like when I’m presenting an idea similar to a male delegate, I can be seen as annoying whereas they’re seen as innovative and in command,” said senior Maria Morkas, the Under-Secretary General of The Village High School Model United Nations team. “It is a symptom of a larger issue at hand in competitive activities. In in-person MUN conferences, it’s a lot easier for tall people to gain control of the room. It’s usually male features which are perceived as the powerful ones.” 


Furthermore, not only do men and women have different scientifically successful traits, but also different approaches. A 2016 article published by Psychology Today explains that men and women tend to have different approaches to problems or questions in a work environment. Thus, even within a group of men, who genuinely believe they are good people and respect women, subconscious sexism can occur. 


“There’s generally different approaches to problems I’ve noticed girls and guys tend to take,” said Khatri. “It can be intimidating at times, especially with groups of guys. Even if you know they’re good people, it’s still uncomfortable because you know your ideas won’t be well supported in that kind of environment and you won’t entirely agree with their thoughts. Somewhere a compromise needs to be made, and most of the time, it’s the girl making it.” 


Diverse perspectives are generally important within collaborations and corporations. However, women fail to climb the corporate later when one perspective overpowers another due to a lack of representation.


“Girls and boys generally tend to have different formative experiences that make them think in different ways,” said Morkas. “It’s those different ways that become really helpful, but sometimes a certain perspective gets presented more than the other.” 


The Berkeley Science Review claims that a psychological positive feedback loop is sought to be the main cause of scarce female representation in the corporate world, and thus the reason why male perspectives tend to dominate.


“Even with as much support as is offered, just the fact that there aren’t many other girls who are doing computer science creates a psychological positive feedback loop,” said Khatri. “The fact that there aren’t many girls means that other girls tend to not want to join as much because it doesn’t seem like something any of their friends are doing or are interested in.”


In addition, the rare women that do choose to enter the corporate world or STEM fields and manage to succeed are held to much higher standards than their male counterparts. Hence, a simple mistake can get them as much as fired. Starting as a crew worker at a McDonald’s restaurant, Janice Fields worked her way up to the number 2 position of the company, the President of McDonald’s USA. However, in 2012, in a strategic act to raise prices, the company experienced its first monthly drop in profits since 2003, and Fields was thrown the blame and fired from the company.


“This is generally true for a lot of STEM fields,” said Khatri. “When there’s a minority in a group, there tends to be this feeling, whether it be perceived or thrust upon you, that you need to perform to a higher level.” 


In the spirit of International Women’s Month, multiple women have found ways to take back their voices in the corporate world and succeed in hostile work environments. 


“Recently, I’ve seen women who suggest, ‘How about we do keep the exclamation points in our emails’,” said sophomore Caroline Hsu, a member of multiple STEM honor societies and public speaking activities. “It’s generally a more female trait to appeal to emotions, which isn’t a bad thing. Don’t remove exclamation points from your emails to seem more like your male colleagues. Keep them and don’t submit to the patriarchal structure.” 

A 2010 nonfiction book, Whistling Vivaldi covers an interesting perspective about bias. It mentions that biases diminish when groups band together, the reason why people form labor unions. Equity legislation and targeted outreach at all grade levels has a significant and lasting impact. However, acknowledging the scientific gender bias existing in the male subconscious will equip men who practice sublime sexism with the awareness that heals their mindsets.