Reader M.B. alerts us to this recent article in the Economist reporting that, yes, yada yada, there’s still a “glass ceiling”–that is, relatively few women compared to men hold top management jobs at America’s Fortune 500 companies. Here are the key findings from the federal government’s Glass Ceiling Commission (I’ll bet you didn’t know there even was such a commission, but there is; the Clinton administration set it up during the 1990s):

“In 1995 the commission said that the barrier was continuing ‘to deny untold numbers of qualified people the opportunity to compete for and hold executive level positions in the private sector.’ It found that women had 45.7% of America’s jobs and more than half of master’s degrees being awarded. Yet 95% of senior managers were men, and female managers’ earnings were on average a mere 68% of their male counterparts.

“Ten years on, women account for 46.5% of America’s workforce and for less than 8% of its top managers, although at big Fortune 500 companies the figure is a bit higher. Female managers’ earnings now average 72% of their male colleagues.”

This sounds like progress to me: More women in high-level management jobs than 10 years ago earning more money relative to high-level male managers than 10 years ago. Consider that a mere 40 years ago there was scarcely a female top manager to be seen on the American corporate scene, and many companies practiced overt sex discrimination that prevented women from being promoted to any kind of management job at all. Indeed, women couldn’t even get into many business schools back then. Haven’t we come a long way?

But of course the glass–or rather, the glass ceiling–is always half-empty for the kind of people who believe in the concept of a “glass ceiling” in the first place. In the Economist article, women execs complain like it’s 1965 about old-boys’ networks and promotions granted on the basis of time spent downing martinis with the CEO rather than crunching the numbers with the midnight oil. Here’s a sample:

‘First comes the exclusion from informal networks. In many firms jock-talk and late-night boozing still oil the wheels of progress. In America and elsewhere it has become almost traditional for sales teams to take potential clients to strip clubs and the like. These activities specifically exclude most women….

“The second hurdle is…’pervasive stereo typing of women’s capacity for leadership’. Everyone is unconsciously biased and there is strong evidence that men are biased against promoting women inside companies….

“The third hurdle is the lack of role models. There are too few women in top jobs to show how it is done.”

C’mon! Does anyone believe that in 2005, in highly competitive, globalized economy, male managers are still (if they ever were) rewarded with CEO jobs for yucking it up at strip clubs with the clients rather than producing results? Isn’t it patronizing to assume that women can’t succeed without “role models”? The Economist article includes the inevitable Why Can’t We Be Like Scandinavia? paragraph, pointing out that Norway has a law requring every coporation to have at least two female directors on its board.

The fact remains that the road to to the top of any company, large or small, is exceedingly arduous, and many women, especially mothers with children, simply decide they’d rather settle for a comfortable and nicely paid middle-management job, or part-time consulting, instead of clawing one’s way to the perilous pinnacle of top management, which is where the buck stops and the ax can quickly sever one’s neck.

For some perspective, I suggest these two books by economists Christine Stolba and Diane Furchtgott-Roth: “Women’s Figures: An Illustrated Guide to the Economic Progress of Women in America” (1999), and “The Feminist Dilemma: When Success Is Not Enough” (2001). Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth contend that the very idea of a glass ceiling–an invisible barrier to women?s achievement created by insecure men–is nonsense and that any gaps nowadays between the salaries and promotion histories of comparably placed men and women is due strictly to a myriad of individual choices made by women.

And besides, as the Economist article itself shows, women are making genuine progress to more top slots at corporations–which ought to be cause for rejoicing, not complaining.