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February 18, 2010Recent headlines such as “Schools Close the Gender Gap,” “Women Now a Majority in American Workplaces” and “We Did It!” give the impression that women have finally hit parity with men. Change has come. Women and men are equal. Hurray!

Not so fast.

Not only is the glass ceiling firmly in place— it is a lot lower than we think. As Catalyst's Pipeline’s Broken Promise details, a woman’s first job largely seals her fate in the business world. Female MBA grads start at lower positions than men, get fewer promotions, and are paid less. Not surprisingly, they are also less satisfied with their careers.

The report surveyed 4,143 women and men who earned their MBA degrees between 1996 and 2007 at 26 leading business schools in Asia, Canada, Europe, and the United States. The results accounted for, among other factors, industry, global region, prior experience, career aspirations, time elapsed since earning the MBA and parenthood status. All these being equal, the survey found:

- Men on average began their careers in jobs that were at higher levels than those for women.

- Women were paid on average $4,600 less than men in their first post-MBA job.

- Men’s salary growth outpaced that of women, regardless of differences in starting salary.

- Even if both women and men started at the entry level, men progressed more quickly than women.

- Women were treated differently than men by their first managers— 25% of women versus 16% of men cited a “difficult manager” as the reason for quitting their first job out of business school.

- Men reported greater career satisfaction than women— 37% of men said they were “very satisfied” with their overall advancement versus 30% of women.

What does this mean for you and your company?

In our report we outline solutions from top CEO’s that women— and their employers— should take to root out inequity. Anne M. Mulcahy, Chairman of Xerox, told us:

"There’s a feeling that a level playing field exists. These findings tell us this hasn’t been realized yet. High potential women coming onto the job market need to be comparing companies. Which of them have a better track record for advancing women? Those are the ones they should be targeting as their employer."

Women should take a hard look at the number of women in their firms of choice— especially at the senior leadership level. Firms with few or no women should raise a big red flag. It may reveal an entrenched gender bias that could have deep implications for their own careers.

Mulcahy suggested that to root out gender bias, companies should “take the resumes of the last 100 people hired, remove the names, do an assessment of where the hires should be positioned and compare that with where they were placed.”

It is unfortunate that we must still rely on white-out to fix ingrained biases. Statistically, meritocracy and representation should go hand-in-hand. When the numbers of both women and men are large, an organization should look the same at the bottom, in the middle, and at the top. The fact that it doesn’t indicates systemic barriers interfering with progress for a portion of the talent pool. After all, talent doesn’t discriminate. Good leaders are good leaders no matter their gender, race or ethnicity.

As our Bottom Line studies have shown, more women in senior leadership, on average, correlate with enhanced financial performance. Companies that disadvantage women from day one lose out on half the talent. That’s like trying to play cards with half a deck.

Not a winning strategy— especially in today’s economy.