Ask someone to picture one of corporate America’s top executives. Odds are that the picture will be of a middle-aged, white male in a five thousand dollar suit. While the suit may still cost five thousand dollars, this image may undergo some reimagining as a new study released by the Harvard Business Review suggests there has been a major shift in what type of people are filling the suits of top executives.
The study, conducted by professors from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Madrid’s IE Business School, was an update to a 2001 study compiling the backgrounds of America’s top corporate executives by two of the schools’ professors, Wharton’s Peter Capelli and IE’s Monika Mamori.
While the research uncovered how the demographics of these top positions on Wall Street and other firms have changed, what has drawn perhaps the most attention is where the most executives got their education.
In 1980, 32% of top business executives graduated from public universities while 14% came from Ivy League institutions. Now, only 10% of executives come from Ivy League schools, and the number of executives from public colleges has ballooned to 55%.
The biggest losers in this development? Private non-Ivy institutions like Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. The share of top executives from this block of schools fell from 54% in 1980 to 35% in the present day. While this may be discouraging for many Eagles, Capelli did offer us a silver lining.
The study demonstrated advances for women hoping to hold top executive positions. Of the 1,000 positions surveyed in this study, nearly 18% of them were held by women. That is a huge shift from 1980 when the study found that none of the positions were held by women.
Even more interesting was the discovery that women actually achieved these high-level positions more quickly than their male counterparts. On average, women reached “top tier” positions like CEO, vice chairmanships and presidents in 28 years as opposed to 29 years for men.
This gap grows even larger for “mid-tier” positions such as executive vice president, general counsel and chief marketing officer. Women are also more likely to be promoted more quickly, averaging four years per promotion as opposed to five years for men.
Cappelli offered further insight as to why this might be the case. He says there may be an explicit effort by companies to get women into top jobs faster. “It’s possible that a type of affirmative action is going on,” he says.
Another explanation could be that the talent pool of women in these executive jobs is simply better. He added that the difference may be due to the fact that there are more women in functional jobs — such as human resources, legal or marketing — for which the technical expertise needed means they are promoted more quickly.
Of course, there is much variation amongst companies. Some companies, such as Target, PepsiCo and Lockheed Martin, have extraordinary male-to-female ratios, where women hold half of the top ten positions at each company. Conversely, 17 other companies did not have any women in these positions.
All of this data suggests that the traditional concept of climbing the corporate ladder may no longer apply. Cappelli added, “They’re all just so different. There’s a UPS model, there’s a Google model and there’s an Exxon model. The idea that there is a corporate model of leadership just doesn’t seem to resonate any more.”