The persistent disparities between how many men and women are present in various professional fields and managerial positions has long been a topic of discuss and debate, but recently, economist Justin Wolfers came up with a new way to quantify the gap. His method is called the Glass Ceiling Index. Using data from the Compustat financial database and the consulting company Ernst and Young, Wolfers discovered that there are more men named John that are CEOs of S&P 1500 companies than there are women of any name.
This striking result is only part of the Glass Ceiling Index. Wolfers defines the index as the ratio between the number of women in a field and the number of men named John, James, Robert, or William. Writing for the New York Times, Wolfers found that the group of CEOs of large companies has an index value of 4. That means that for any woman, there are four men who have one of those four names. The boards of directors of those companies is not quite as skewed: the index value for boards of directors is 1.03. That means for any woman serving as a director, there is, on average, more than one man with the name John, James, Robert, or William.
It is not easy to understand these numbers without more context. Wolfers calculated what the value of the index is in the American population. The result: 0.12. That means that there is a little less than ten times as many men names John, James, Robert, or William for each one woman serving as a director then there are in the general population. Similar numbers hold for the value of the Glass Ceiling Index in national politics.
The historical difficulty that women have had in reaching positions of authority continues to this day, but the Glass Ceiling Index provides an intuitive way of understanding just how small the presence of women is. The fact that the base value of the index is 0.12 means that if boards of directors or CEOs reflected the gender and name proportions in the population, there would be about 10 women in such positions for every one man with the name John, James, Robert, or William. Instead, the actual results are almost the opposite: there are several times as many men with the big four names than there are any women. (Which speaks volumes to the sheer number of men vs. women leading the S&P 1500.)
While those four names are common names for American men of the right age to serve as high-level executives and political figures, it is surprising to see that the number of men bearing those names often equals or exceeds the total number of women in a given role. Wolfers chose those four names because they were very popular between 1945 and 1965. People born in that time period are now of the right age to be CEOs and similar leadership roles. These names are no longer as popular as they used to be, so an index that measured the same concept for people born in the late 20th and early 21st centuries would result in different names.
But the names aren’t the point. The underlying message is that not only do men outnumber women, tiny slivers of subsets of men also outnumber women. In 1950, about 15 percent of male babies were named John, James, Robert, or William, so that is a sizable fraction of the male population. Nevertheless, the fact that CEOs drawn from 15 percent of the entire male population grossly outnumber all female CEOs in the S&P 1500 shows that there is still a long, long way to go before women achieve parity in positions of power.