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Time off work - the biggest reason why fewer women are CEOs

Women are underrepresented in CEO positions partly because they spend more time outside of the labour market during the years when their careers are most likely to take off. Women also less often work in sales or production, which are common pathways for CEO recruitment.
Aalto University School of Business, a student ascending, public art of Risto Suomi on the wall, photo Mikko Raskinen
The biggest reasons why fewer women are CEOs are that women take longer breaks from workforce and that they less often work in sales or production, which are common pathways for CEO recruitment. Photo: Aalto University / Mikko Raskinen

A recent study by School of Business Professors Matti Keloharju and Samuli Knüpfer, and Professor Joacim Tåg from Hanken School of Economics shows that time spent outside the labour market due to parental leave, sick leave or unemployment is by far the most important contributor to gender gaps in CEO appointments. This explains 26% of the gender differences in CEO appointments and this rises to 41% among university graduates who have children, the researchers reveal.

'These gaps in women’s labour market attachment usually arise after the birth of a first child, causing their absences to increase relative to men. The gaps narrow as the children grow up but do not return to pre-childbirth levels during the 10 years following the birth of the first child', Professor Keloharju says.

The gender disparity in CEO appointments is also significantly influenced by prior executive experience, contributing 22% to the overall gap, and 26% in the subset of graduates who are parents. Female executives are more frequently found in departments such as personnel and public relations, whereas CEO roles are more often filled from sales or production backgrounds, which have a higher male presence. 

The study’s findings are based on analysis of the careers of 143,000 Swedish graduates in business, economics and engineering, the most common fields of education for CEOs, over a period of 25 years. Data was gathered almost entirely from official Swedish government registries. The Swedish experience is interesting, because it suggests CEO gender gaps and their early-career origins arise even in an institutional setting with a long egalitarian tradition and family friendly politics.  

To determine whether discrimination also plays a significant role in the continuation of a ‘glass ceiling’ for women, the researchers drew on data from Statistics Sweden’s Work Environment Survey. They found that just 9% of female respondents reported experiencing gender-related discrimination at work, meaning it’s unlikely to play a large role in explaining the gender disparity in CEO appointments.

The study 'What prevents women from reaching the top?' was published in the journal Financial Management, where it was honored with the Runner-Up Award for Best Paper.

Financial Times published an article about the study on November 25, 2023

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