Opportunities for new MBA graduates entering the job market are finally picking up after two years of declines in hiring. If you're a male MBA graduate, feel free to celebrate your good fortune. If you're a female MBA graduate, feel free to temper your expectations.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that hiring of MBA grads is returning to pre-recession levels. But according to research conducted by Catalyst, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of opportunities for women in the work place, female MBA grads can expect to enter their first post-MBA job at a lower level, and at lower pay, than their male counterparts. According to Catalyst's research, even when factors such as prior experience, industry and parenthood are taken into account, female MBA grads earn, on average, $4,600 less than men in their first job out of school.
I spoke about all of this with Christine Silva, Catalyst's Toronto-based director of research, and she said females holding MBAs took a much greater hit from the recession than their male counterparts. She traced that fact back to the gaps that exist from Day 1 on the job:
We found that women at the very top were three times as likely to have lost their jobs because of the downturn than men. I believe it was 19 percent of senior executive women, compared to 6 percent of men. We were able to show that women lag men from their very first job after MBA graduation. As time progresses and their careers advance, that gap gets wider. So we've got a problem from the very first day. People often think that if we just give it time the problem will solve itself, and we'll no longer see a gender pay gap or that gap in [job] level. But giving it time just makes the problem worse.
We started looking at some of the reasons why that might be. We looked at mentoring and sponsorship, and the distinction between the two. A mentor is a person who provides advice and guidance, and that's very important for someone's personal and professional development. But a sponsor is critical for advancement. A sponsor is someone who has a seat at the decision-making table and advocates on your behalf when it comes to promotions or development opportunities. Sure enough, when we started digging into the numbers, it wasn't that women didn't have mentors, but that the men's were more senior. We found that what mattered was how senior that person was-the more senior your mentor or advisor, the more your career advances and your salary grows. That tells us it may be sponsorship that's making the difference-if that person is very senior and has that seat at the decision-making table, he may be in a position to advocate for you.
Linking that back to the finding that senior executive women at the very top lost their jobs in greater numbers during the recession, when we released those findings people were speculating that it may have been because those women didn't have enough sponsors in their court, so when it came time to decide who would stay and who would go, sponsors became very important in that discussion, advocating for you to be one of the key people who stay. Sure enough, in a later report we found that more men than women have those important sponsors.
Silva elaborated on what lies at the root of the obstacles that female MBA grads face:
Catalyst research has tackled some of the barriers out there-everything from a lack of role models at the top, and how that influences women's expectations of the levels they can attain, to unintentional exclusion of women from informal networks. We still hear about networking and decisions that happen on the golf course, or over a beer at the pub, watching the game-places where women may not be invited or feel comfortable or natural. There's a bias inherent in talent management systems-what a leader looks like; how people are evaluated; assumptions of what opportunities women might want, assuming that a woman may not want to relocate or take a global assignment because she has a family, without asking the question.
So there are a number of factors at play, and of course every organization has its own culture that may present unique challenges. But these are some of the things we've seen consistently across industries and organizations. And certainly in our research on women in technology, that's been the case-the exclusion from networks, lack of mentors and sponsors, lack of role models at the top.
Silva stressed, moreover, that when Catalyst looked at the gap that exists from the first job and grows over time, it wanted to ensure that it tackled some of the common myths we hear - how the gap is typically explained away:
The two we looked at were aspirations and parenthood. There's the argument that people aren't reaching the top because they don't want to. So to tackle that we looked at just women and men who aspire to be a senior executive or CEO. We conducted the same analysis and reached the same finding, that the gap exists from Day 1 and grows over time. We did the same thing to tackle the explanation that people so often give, that women take time out to have kids-that's why we see the gap. So we took just the women and men who didn't have children, and found the same thing-the gap existed in both level and pay from their very first job, and grew over time. So it's important to understand that it's not some of these arguments that people offer, that it's the personal choices that women are making. As you can imagine, MBAs from large schools [regardless of gender] want to reach the top of their companies, and have an impact as leaders in the future.
Finally, I asked Silva how and why the myth that gender parity is being accomplished continues to be perpetuated. Her response:
[We tend to think] there has been progress because we've been talking about it for so long, because so much effort has been placed on the advancement of women. Many companies have diversity programs, so there's just this assumption that things must have been tackled. We see a few female CEOs, therefore [we surmise that] women can get to the top, as opposed to keeping track of whether women are advancing in numbers in proportion to their aspirations, and in proportion to the number of women graduating out of programs that feed into leadership. We've made progress, but it's been very slow.
As we look at our census numbers that we release every year, in the last two years we've almost hit a point of stagnation, where we're not seeing even that incremental change in the representation of women at the top. So it's time to say, "We've come this far, why haven't we gone as far as we would like?" Companies need to take a more careful look at the programs they have in place around talent management and hiring practices to determine where there might be hidden biases.