Key findings:

  • 69% of men think it is extremely or very likely that sexism will prevent them from achieving a C-suite position, compared to 51% of women
  • 49% of men say sexism has made it extremely or very difficult to advance in their career, compared to 41% of women
  • ⅔ of men think that males outnumber females in C-suite positions because “men are more likely to have the necessary leadership qualities.”
  • Despite this attitude, 85% of men think it is “extremely” or “very” important that women are equally represented in C-suite positions

September 22 marks American Women’s Business Day, which honors the accomplishments of businesswomen throughout the U.S.

While there are many achievements to celebrate, a closer look at the current state of women in the business world reveals that there is still a way to go in achieving gender parity.

According to McKinsey’s 2020 “Women in the Workplace” report, only 21% of C-suite positions are currently held by women, and a recent study by the Women Business Collaborative found that only 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

In order to find out why current MBA students believe men continue to be greatly overrepresented in business, and how they feel sexism has impacted and will continue to impact their ability to advance in their careers, surveyed 1,000 current MBA candidates in August.

Our findings revealed that, despite the numbers, male MBA candidates are actually more likely than female MBA candidates to believe that sexism is taking a toll on their careers.

7 in 10 men say sexism is likely to prevent them from achieving C-suite position

When asked if they believe that sexism will prevent them from achieving a C-suite position, 69% of male MBA candidates say that possibility is extremely or very likely.

Meanwhile, only 51% of female MBA candidates hold the same view.
An additional 12% of men say that sexism is somewhat likely to hold them back from attaining a C-suite position, compared to 27% of women.

White men more likely to see sexism as a barrier to career advancement

Among ethnic groups, roughly three-fourths of White male MBA candidates (74%) say that it is extremely or very likely that sexism will keep them out of the C-suite. By comparison, 50% of Asian, 48% of Black, and 30% of Hispanic/Latino male MBA candidates have the same view.

According to educational and hiring consultant Dr. Deb Geller, this view from men, and particularly White men, is likely a reaction to the shifts in hiring and corporate culture driven by the need for more diversity and equity in high-level positions.

“What we’re seeing is that organizations are increasingly committed to eradicating sexism and promoting diversity as a core value,” says Geller. “Therefore, past sexist behaviors that may have favored males in the job search are being replaced with more neutral, objective search processes that lead to more diverse applicant pools and less hesitancy to hire or promote females who are qualified. What men are perceiving as sexism is in reality just more equitable hiring and promotion processes.”

Half of men say sexism has made career advancement difficult for them

As the vast majority ofMBA candidates have work experience prior to earning their master’s, we also asked survey respondents if they felt sexism has made it difficult to advance in their career thus far.

Forty-nine percent of men say that sexism has made it extremely or very difficult to advance in their career, compared to 41% of women.

However, 30% of women say sexism has made it somewhat difficult to advance, compared to 22% of men.

However, Geller points out that in the case of getting hired or promoted, it may be easier for men to blame sexism than to acknowledge their own shortcomings.

“The reality is there are a lot of MBA programs and candidates but not a lot of C-suite positions,” says Geller. “These graduates are entering a very competitive field, and they’re not all going to make it to the top. It may be easier for men who aspire to these roles, but don’t believe they’ll get there, to blame something external, rather than acknowledge that they may personally lack the necessary qualifications to get to those positions.”

Men and women offer different reasons for gender gap

When asked to identify the reasons why they think men outnumber women in C-suite positions, men are most likely to say that it is because men are more likely to have the necessary leadership qualities (65%) and work experience (55%). Forty-five percent of men say it is because of sexism and that women are discriminated against.

On the flip side, the plurality of women, 47%, say there are more men in C-suite positions because of sexism, while 32% say that men are more likely to have the necessary leadership qualities and 36% say men are more likely to have more work experience.

However, when asked how important it is for women to be represented in C-suite positions, the vast majority of men (83%) say that it is extremely or very important. A slightly smaller number of women, 77%, hold the same view.

Meanwhile, 11% of women say it is not important at all for women to have equal representation in C-suite positions, compared to 5% of men.

To Geller, this disconnect between what men say they want regarding gender equality and the business world, and how they actually view women who aspire to leadership positions, represents a hurdle that must still be overcome.

“What is interesting to me is how many male respondents said they were committed to eliminating sexism, but also said that the reason more males than females are in C-suite positions is because men are more likely to have the required leadership qualifications,” Geller says. “They are still lacking the awareness that that statement in and of itself is sexist. Attitudes like this are an indication that while we may be making progress, it’s not particularly fast progress.”

Geller also says that the high number of women who believe men are more likely to achieve C-suite positions because they have the necessary leadership qualifications is troubling.

“Our education programs are failing if they are leading students to believe that gender makes a difference in leadership qualifications,” Geller says. “Everyone has a chance to advance their career to the level they want. They just have to work hard and earn it.”

Kennette J. Burgess, 2011 MBA graduate and CEO, owner, and artistic director at FOCUS Marketing & Development Solutions, Inc, provides some additional insight.

“It was hard for me to advance at male-dominated companies without either allowing ill-treatment or demanding my seat at the table,” says Burgess. “As a woman, not to mention a black woman, I was often passed over and publicly belittled because I tried to foster teamwork, and was a self-starter and problem-solver who would ask a lot of questions in order to gain a comprehensive understanding. I was often deemed ‘too aggressive.’ Female empowerment is one of the many things needed to correct the C-suite ratio. Not enough women are encouraged to take up these high-paying careers, or even be entrepreneurs, and too many women are shifted, with scholarships and HR practices, to typical support roles.”

All data found within this report derives from a survey commissioned by and conducted online by survey platform Pollfish. In total, 1,000 American MBA candidates were surveyed. To qualify for the survey, respondents had to currently be a candidate in an MBA program. Gender was represented in this survey as binary. Appropriate respondents were found via a screening question. This survey was conducted on August 23, 2021. All respondents were asked to answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their abilities. Any questions can be directed to [email protected].