Gender disparity in the C-suite: Do male and female CEOs differ in how they reached the top?


Gender disparity in the C-suite

Do male and female CEOs differ in how they reached the top?

Australian Industry report, March 2014

At the heart of leadership theory is a belief that one becomes a great leader through a series of developmental experiences. If this is true, then there are likely to be a series of critical developmental experiences for CEOs as occupiers of the ultimate leadership position in companies. Of course, beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, meaning that CEOs are selected by boards and it is the board which assesses the relevance and value of those experiences. Given the under-representation of women in CEO positions, a natural question arises as to whether women have accumulated the “right” developmental experiences? An even more intriguing question is whether Boards, which are male dominated, are more likely to assess CEO capability through their own lens of their own career journey – which is their norm, what is “appropriate” and “expected”.

These questions led to a fascinating study by researchers from the University of Queensland, Dr Fitzsimmons and Professors Callan and Paulsen on the family, life and early careers of 60 Australian CEOs (30 men and 30 women). Their findings reveal a very different pattern of personal and career histories for men and women, with much greater levels of early life exposure to business for women (e.g. small business), adversity (e.g. family instability) and cross-industry experience. In contrast, male CEOs experienced much greater family stability, and a much more linear career pathway within a career dominated by work within a single industry.


The aim of the research was to compare the antecedents for male and female CEOs of listed companies to identify points of similarity and difference. In particular, the research aimed to identify how women and men create “career capital” with a focus on family and early work experiences.


Sixty CEOs of large companies participated in an in-depth “life narrative” interview. For the 30 female CEOs, 24/30 of their companies were listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (and this represented half of the population of female CEOs on ASX listed companies). Thirty male CEOs were matched to female CEOs in terms of organizational size, industry and listing (i.e. 24/30 male CEOs led a company listed on the ASX). The primary aim of this selection methodology was to create matched samples.

Interview questions ranged across early childhood experiences, early work experience (whilst at school), parental roles, childhood heroes and mentors, travel, work experiences post school and leadership style.

After a preliminary level of analysis, interviewees were contacted to validate preliminary findings and if necessary elaborate on specific themes.


The fundamental research finding was that in terms of childhood and career experiences male CEOs were more similar to each other than different, and female CEOs were more similar to each other than different, whereas a comparison between men and women revealed significant differences. In particular, the childhoods and career experiences differed in relation to (i) family dynamics, role modelling of teachers and early work experiences; and (ii) industry exposure and work/family responsibilities.

Having said that, the researchers also identified points of similarity between male and female CEOs, for example in relation to the strong impact of their fathers’ strong work ethic on their personal work ethic, and the value placed on networking, mentors and visible achievement.

1. Childhood

Early childhood: Whilst childhood experiences played a critical formative role in the development of CEOs, male or female, the elements of those experiences differed significantly for men and women. Male CEOs, for example, were more likely to have had a stable family life with a male family breadwinner and stay-at-home spouse, whereas female CEOs were more likely to have experienced disruption, e.g. moves to new locations and family breakdowns. These disruptions meant that women were more likely to take on additional family responsibilities at an early age, which they described as giving them strength and fortitude.

Role models: Male CEOs were more likely to report on strong male role models, such as their father and grandfather, who provided guidance on “leadership”, whereas female CEOs were more likely to report on strong female role models, working mothers (e.g. in a family business) and messages of balancing work and family.

Both male and female CEOs identified the significance of an individual teacher who encouraged them to achieve, although interestingly male CEOs were more likely to also report on teachers (including sports coaches) as teaching them to lead, whereas female CEOs were more likely to comment on a teacher influencing their careers.

Part-time work: Both male and female CEOs were likely to have worked part-time whilst at school, however for female CEOs the driver was more about gaining independence, whereas for male CEOs work “allowed them to gain and test their work ethic against others, as well as gaining foundational experiences about the nature of work and leadership”. Having said that, many of the female CEOs worked in family businesses and this was identified as a site where they learnt about business stewardship as well.

2. Career

In many ways the careers and insights of the CEOs were remarkably similar, e.g. both men and women talked about the importance of networking (with individuals and professional associations) and maintaining networks over time; visibility and “carefully measured self-promotion”; additionally they were all likely to have undertaken post-graduate education and held line roles.

Nevertheless, the researchers found two significant differences between the careers of male and female CEOs, firstly in relation to their industry experiences and secondly in relation to the pattern of their work/family responsibilities. These differences manifested themselves in an unexpected way during the interview process, namely women took longer to describe their life/career narrative then men (average 1 hour 10 minutes versus average 48 minutes), and this difference was directly related to the time taken on questions relating to career hops and work/family. One wonders how this sidebar finding on the length of time taken to explain one’s history may offer insight into selection interviews more broadly, where women and men take different amounts of time, and interviewers may expect different amount of time to be taken.

Industry breadth/depth: Female CEOs were much more likely to have had diverse career experiences across different industries, whereas men were more likely to have remained within one industry. In particular, two-thirds of the female CEOs had moved across industries at least once during their career, whereas male CEOs were much more likely to have moved companies but stayed within one industry domain. Women were more likely than men to talk about career blockages, and twice as likely as men to have moved sideways to gain a promotion which often entailed moving outside their starting industry.

Female CEOs “differed in the focus of their passion by describing a ‘passion for their job and team’ rather than their industry and spoke far less often regarding purposeful career development”.

This difference in industry experience appeared to have a direct impact on the likelihood of an eventual CEO appointment. The researchers noted other research which has found that, as a rule of thumb, Boards prefer to appoint a CEO with deep industry expertise, a preference more likely to be satisfied by the career paths of men according to this study. This norm was only disrupted if there was a compelling need for a different approach, for example, a financial crisis or a specific skill set (e.g. corporate turnaround). In these circumstances a breadth of experience or specialisation favoured women’s career paths.

Family responsibilities: Two-thirds of the female CEOs had taken breaks in their careers, albeit short breaks of less than six months, and most re-entered the workforce in a significantly different industry or position. Women were much more likely to report that they were primary carers for children and domestic responsibilities than men, although they were also more likely than men to report the equitable sharing of responsibilities with their spouses as well. In contrast, male CEOs were more likely to report that they had left the care of domestic and family responsibilities to their spouses. All of the male CEOs had children compared with two-thirds of the women CEOs, which probably reflected the fact that women were more likely to have made deliberate choices about how to manage work/family life than men.


The findings of this study throw another light on why men may dominate corporate leadership ranks. In particular, there is a significant likelihood that Board members (the overwhelming majority of whom are men, and most likely drawn from the C-Suite) have an intuitive understanding of, and preference for, career patterns which mirror their own. A depth of industry experience vs a breadth of industry experience, international experience in line roles as an ex-pat, vs domestic experience, linear career paths vs lattice career paths: each of these three factors are likely to differentiate the experiences of male and female (potential) leaders. Now that this differentiation, and apparent impact, has been made transparent it enables leaders to question its automatic continuation. The question is: how should industry experience be evaluated if we now know that one criterion (depth) is more likely to advantage men and one criterion (breadth) is more likely to advantage women? Is this primary criterion as objective as many would like to believe, or is it more reflective of self-replication and similarity attraction bias.

Additionally, what weight should be given to the earlier childhood experiences of women, which are more likely to be marked by adversity and therefore have resulted in resilience?

The researchers also suggested implications in terms of early mentoring and early line role appointments for women, noting that women were less likely than men to have identified role models who had taught them how to become leaders, and leadership experiences are a critical pathway to developing leadership skills.

To read the full article, see Fitzsimmons, T. W., Callan, V. J. and Paulsen, N., (2014) “Gender disparity in the C-suite: Do male and female CEOs differ in how they reached the top?” (2014) The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 245-266.

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