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2016: Year in Review

Women in Corporate America: Still a Struggle at the Top

Trump speaks during the presidential town hall debate with Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis

The presidential election put the spotlight not just on sexism in general, but how women feel about their career prospects, say experts. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

This year, talk about women in the workplace dominated the conversation, from discussions about whether Hillary Clinton would be the first woman to lead the United States, to the uphill — and in some cases, worsening — prospects for women to earn as much or rise as high as their male counterparts.

"Overall, it's been a really mixed bag for women," said Ursula Mead, founder and CEO of InHerSight, a ratings site that focuses on women's experience in the workplace.

"We've had a lot of high profile women this year highlight the work that needs to be done," she said, pointing to Serena Williams' calling-out of the sexism in professional tennis, Madonna's recent speech at a Billboard Women in Music event and the efforts of politicians like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren to highlight both the overt and subtle sexism that exists in politics.

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"The election itself really put the spotlight not just on sexism in general, but how women feel about their career prospects," she said. Prominent news hosts like Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson talked about enduring sexist and inappropriate behavior from ousted Fox News chair Roger Ailes, and the issue of sexism remained a flashpoint throughout the presidential campaign.

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But while getting it on the table is one thing, doing something about it is another. This year's Fortune 500 list had a mere 21 female-helmed companies on it, down from 24 in the previous two years. Put another way, only 4 percent of America's top companies are run by women.

Research from compensation information firm PayScale found that the gender pay gap goes hand-in-hand with the number of women in high-ranking positions.

While the uncontrolled pay gap — that is, looking across the entire workforce — shows that women earn just 76 cents for each dollar a man earns, the controlled gap that accounts for differences in education and job type, is much smaller, at 98 cents to a man's dollar.

A Silver Lining?

"We do see the pay gap grow as women advance in their careers," said PayScale vice president, Lydia Frank, with the divergence accelerating when women are in the roughly 30-to-35 year age bracket.

"There's been a lot of emphasis on this concept of equal pay for equal work," Frank said, but that focus misses a bigger issue.

"One reason women are not being hired or promoted into positions of higher authority is purely in the numbers," said Bettina Deynes, vice president of human resources and diversity at the Society for Human Resource Management.

"There are significantly fewer women than men, so they're statistically at a disadvantage… they're fighting the odds that a man will be chosen," she said.

PayScale's research reached the same conclusion. "What we really saw over the last year and from this report is it is so much about the representation of women in high-paying jobs when it comes to talking about progress in corporate America," Frank said.

In other words, the women who do beat the odds are well-paid, but the ones who actually make it to the top are few and far between.

"What it does show is that women are still underrepresented in the best paying jobs," she said, especially in high-paying industries like technology. Across the entire labor force, "Men are 85 percent more likely than women to be vice presidents or C-suite execs… and 171 percent more likely to hold these by late career."

Men Are the Ones Doing the Hiring

The women who do apply for top-tier jobs are often facing men who make the hiring decisions.

"People tend to hire people like themselves. We see this happen every time, and this is something many men will not admit," Deynes said. "You can have an easier time building a case for a man because they're in the majority," she said.

"The concept of unconscious bias is really important," Frank said. "Men and women have certain expectations… we don't realize we're doing it."

InHerSight found that discrepancies in hiring and promoting men over women has a corrosive effect on women's satisfaction at work.

As they move up the corporate ladder, women become less satisfied with the representation of women in top positions, the survey found. Early in their careers, 42 percent of women are satisfied, a figure that drops to 27 percent by the time they reach a managerial level.

"It's a really important metric to look at because it measures the reality of what women are experiencing," Mead said. "There's a discrepancy in how men and women perceive support for women at work for simple but powerful reasons," she said. "It's always hard to see things from a perspective that's not their own. Men are rarely asked to do that," she said.

"Over time women start to see things like their male counterparts getting promotions while those female counterparts are passed over," Mead said.

Gender Equity Is on the Rise

The good news is that some companies are realizing a higher ratio of women, especially in the top ranks, is a goal worth striving for. Although women, particularly minority women, remain underrepresented in some of the fastest-growing and top-paying fields like technology, Frank said more Silicon Valley chief executives were making it a priority to address the discrepancy.

"What's been encouraging is there certainly are more employers who are taking this issue seriously and making very public statements around their commitment to gender equity in the workplace," she said.

To help attract and retain top talent, especially female talent, a number of high-profile firms in fields like technology and professional services announced greatly expanded parental leave benefits in 2016, and nearly as important as offering the leave is making it gender-neutral, Frank said.

"If we continue to have the belief that women are responsible for children in a family setting what we're saying to women is your career is second."

More companies today are setting targets not only in their hiring but in their recruitment practices, to ensure that they have a more diverse pool from which to chose at the outset, Deynes said. "It's not where it needs to be but I see some organizations making the attempt by recognizing what they have to do," she said.