Janet Yellen and Kamala Harris break glass ceilings – but Global Elite Boys Club remains

Janet Yellen may soon be the first woman to head the Department of Treasury, about six years after she smashed another glass ceiling at the top of the Federal Reserve.

She is not alone in breaking down barriers in the proposed new cabinet, President Joe Biden. Michele Flournoy is the favorite to lead the Pentagon, while Biden named Avril Haines to be its director of national intelligence – if confirmed, they would be the first women in one of the positions. And this is still talking about Kamala Harris, who on January 20 will be the first wife vice president in American history.

It is often expected the barrier of these obstacles – as women has been doing for many decades – will eventually leads to the kinds of systemic changes it will ultimately yield parity between men and women in leadership roles in government, the corporate world and beyond.

To better understand these dynamics, we analyzed the connections between the elites which manages many of the world’s most powerful companies and organizations. We wanted to see how many women and coloreds have found their way to the center of these networks, which is a sign of how influential they are.

While Yellen and Harris represent progress, our results show that it is still largely a boys’ club.

Two steps forward, one step back?

Around the world, women are increasingly making their way in positions of power in disciplines such as economics and finances it is notoriously sexist.

But despite notable achievements, as at the International Monetary Fund, where both the current and former chiefs were women, the worlds of finance and business remains highly male-dominated.

Among large global companies, for example, women are rarely in top leadership positions. For example, only 37 of the companies listed under the Fortune 500 are led by women – and yet it is a record high. In the USA, only 5% of the CEOs in the S&P 1500 are women.

The inner circle

Why do so few women break through?

We thought the answer might lie in looking at global elites. These leaders have power not only because they run organizations, but because they often have many ties with other elites.

In a paper published in November in the peer-reviewed Global Networks magazine, we examined the racial and gender diversity among the elite leaders who run about 100 of the most powerful organizations and companies in the world based on world rankings and sizes. Our list contains some of the world’s largest companies, such as Walmart and JP Morgan, various influential non-governmental organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam and Amnesty International, and international organizations of all kinds, such as the World Trade Organization and the World Economic Forum.

For each organization, we focused on the individuals who sit on their board of directors. These are the people who make the most important decisions of an organization and determine who ultimately is the leader. We have compiled a list of approximately 1,600 people who were on these boards in 2018. After that, we analyzed their ties with each other in terms of the fact that they belong to the same boards in organizations.

In total, we found about 9,000 ties connecting these leaders, creating a massive complex global network. By adding these ties together, we were able to give a snapshot of how leaders relate to each other and, more importantly, which leaders were on the outskirts of the network and which were central.

We wanted to determine if many women or people of color have made the center or core of this global network of elite and whether they mostly stayed on the edge. Network power studies found that it is not enough to be part of this network to have influence; one must be highly connected also in it.

We found that women make up about 25% of the leaders in the network – but only 6% were women of color. Men of color made up about 21%. The other leaders were all white men, making up more than half of those in the network.

What was most striking to us, however, was how few women and coloreds penetrated the highly interconnected inner circle. Only 15% were women and 10% men of color. Very few were women of color. However, the figure for white men in the inner circle jumps up to 75%.

Make connections

This is of course just a screenshot.

We do not know how it has changed since then or what it was 10 or 20 years ago. We are currently making a graph of how these dynamics develop over time.

One thing we do know is that men tend to dominate the inner circle of these networks, and that they are likely to gather even more power and influence.

It is not enough for women and people of color to come to leadership positions; they must also be able to utilize the hub of power grids to ensure that the progress offered by Yellen, Harris and Biden’s other cabinet collections continues.

Kevin L. Young, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Tuugi Chuluun, Associate Professor of Finance, Loyola University of Maryland


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