Do women need to be “superwomen” to break through the glass ceiling?

A majority of women think that feminism is no longer relevant to their generation but in the business world the gender gap is not improving

By Viviane Fairbank, Staff writer

Over the past thirty years, Dr. Steven Applebaum witnessed the evolution of feminism in the workplace. As an expert in organizational behavior and management practices, Applebaum worked in a variety of environments over the course of his career including corporate human relations divisions and academia. Arbitrage Magazine spoke with the current professor of management at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business about his thoughts on feminism in business sector.

“I remember recommending women who I thought were very smart and who should be considered for main jobs, and I [was told], ‘absolutely not; this is a guy’s domain,’” Appelbaum says.

This is not surprising to hear about business management in the 20th century – Statistics Canada says that in 1981, only 40 per cent of the Canadian working force was female.

What is a surprise it that today, many women think that feminism has run its course; a survey conducted last year by Netmums in the UK discovered that one-third of women find feminism to be “too aggressive” towards men, and one-quarter no longer view feminism as a positive label. Twenty per cent of women find feminism no longer relevant to their generation.

There are some examples in the media of women achieving exceptional success. For instance, Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, achieved iconic status after publishing her “how-to” on business entitled Lean In.

Bloomberg Businessweek summarized the message of her book: “You can ‘have it all’ if you’re willing to practically kill yourself.”

Here, the coin phrase of the modern businesswoman pops up: the woman who “has it all,” also known as “the superwoman.” The looks, the beauty and the successful career all come together to make the ideal life; but only for women. Men, on the other hand, apparently do not need to be exceptional to achieve success. Nor do they feel the need to write as many “how-to” books on the subject.

Does anyone else notice the double standard?

Appelbaum, who recently published a study on the recurring gender gap in top companies, thinks that the idea of the motherly, successful superwoman is precisely what might be holding women back in business.

“[If I’m a CEO] and suddenly I want to promote somebody, I’m going to promote somebody who is going to come in early and stay in late. That’s hard to do when a woman is expected to take care of her children by herself,” he explains.

This may be one of the many reasons that in 2009, only one-third of senior management positions in Canada were held by women.

As the salary increases, so does the problem. Appelbaum’s research points out that only about three per cent of top executives in the Fortune 500 firms are women.

“The numbers are staggering,” Appelbaum says. “45 per cent of companies don’t have one female director on the board.”

Even so, the women who do make it are paid less than their male counterparts. A study by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that men typically make close to 25 per cent more money than women.

The discrepancy in pay could be related to the fact that more men ask for larger salaries.  Lisa Smosarski, editor and stylist at Shortlist Media, tells CMI that “men are four times more likely than women to ask for a pay increase.”

Assertive action and a need for productivity are two characteristics that are described as masculine, while empathy and patience are credited as feminine.

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