Despite increasing numbers of women in the educational pipeline and workplace, the gender gap at the top of the corporate ladder remains wider than ever.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71.5 percent of all 2008 U.S. high school graduates are women. However, in 2009 only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO.

Consulting firm Bain & Company, in association with the Harvard Business Review, conducted a worldwide survey in January 2010 to find out what exactly happens to those 69.5 percent of women after high school graduation.

The initial motivating factor for the survey was the Gender Gap Report presented at this year’s World Economic Forum, said Bain partner Julie Coffman, chair of Bain’s Global Women’s Leadership Council and one of the study’s lead researchers.

“We wanted to know why there was such a lack in progress,” she said.

In the appropriately titled survey “The Great Disappearing Act: Gender Parity in the Workplace,” researchers interviewed over 1,800 people, about 75 percent of whom were female.

Despite differences in numbers, men were amply represented in the study, Coffman said.

“Our goal was to get a cross-section of the business world,” she said. The sample included people of different levels of experience, locations, demographics and industries.

With a diverse sample, it is possible to gain more “insight into how organizations can approach this” problem, she said.

The results of the survey show that women as well as men aspire to be senior leaders in their organizations (82 percent of women compared to 91 percent of men), so the matter does not lie in women’s lack of ambition.

The answer to the riddle of the vanishing women is three-pronged, according to the study.

Bain & Company attributes their disappearance to: a perception gap between genders on the current state of gender parity; a deep-rooted societal belief that women are better caregivers; and business’ lack of sustained commitment to increasing gender parity.

While both men and women agree that gender parity is a desired goal in a workplace, a significantly smaller number of men than women—48 to 80 percent —feel that achieving such parity is a critical business initiative.

However, not all men feel the issue is insignificant, said College sophomore Daniel Goldstern, a summer analyst at Morgan Stanley.

“A company should take an active effort in trying to include women” in the workplace, Goldstern said.

On the other end of the spectrum, women are not strict proponents of gender initiatives, according to Danielle DiBlasio, an account executive at Sally Fischer Public Relations.

“I think companies should just hire the most qualified candidates,” DiBlasio said.

“Though companies that find that mostly males apply for jobs should go out and try to recruit women,” she said.

Women are also constrained by the perception that they are better caregivers than men, a belief that increases their tendencies put their partners’ careers ahead of theirs.

According to the Bain study, women are more likely to relocate, turn down attractive job opportunities and pursue flexible work paths in order to accommodate a partner’s career.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily true” that women tend to sacrifice their careers for this reason, said SFPR account executive Suzy Massari.

Massari attributed the statistics of the survey to the salary differences between men and women—a woman makes 69 cents for every dollar that a man makes.

The best way to approach the problem of gender disparity is to tackle it as one would tackle a business problem, said Coffman.

American corporations do not have “comprehensive and integrated solutions” and do not “treat this as a business imperative,” she said.

There are both quantitative and qualitative solutions to the problem, according to Coffman.

The quantitative solution is for companies to use metrics and do in-depth analysis of their employee recruitment, retention and promotion rates in order to pinpoint the problem.

The qualitative solution is for organizations to talk to their constituents to find out where they feel the company needs improvement

Finally, Coffman said, we must also go to the root of the cause: women who feel as though they must choose between a family life and a career.

To those women, Coffman gives the following advice: “Stay engaged. Stay involved. There are ways to make it work.”

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