From Glass Ceiling to New Structure:
An unpublished chapter from
Regi Herzlinger, a professor of business administration and the first woman to win tenure at Harvard Business School, as quoted in Women Like Us
In the above quote, "not there" refers to managerial women taking time off -- whether in big or small chunks -- to become moms; care for children; or otherwise elevate life beyond work. When they do, their career track inevitably suffers; if they don't, their kids or their health do the suffering.
Herzlinger has thus set forth one of the most intractable of large-company norms. Unfortunately, it is to big business where a researcher has to turn for a contemporary history of "women in business."
This section samples the studies of those who made big bets on the big-firm route -- mostly starting in the 1970s, a decade when America chose to turn a lot of things inside out, and when feminists assumed Corporate America was just one more set of institutions to open up and equalize. The resulting disappointments help justify this report's celebration of enterprises that are, instead, small and new.When Idealism Met Escapism
Like many of the other "isms," feminism took off during the late '60s, and expanded its reach and appeal during the next decade. In December 1975, sociologist Jessie Bernard was asked, "Is it true that 'women's liberation' is increasing sexual anxieties among men?" She replied: "It is for some. For them, sex has become work. This is because in the past, women were passive and just waited to have love made to them... [But now] women have some control over reproduction. They no longer have to count on spending most of their active years bearing and rearing children. Starting in '58 they [have had] fewer and fewer children. Now a great many of them are saying they don't want any children. "
As late as 1972, the moderate version of a "feminist agenda" enjoyed bipartisan support among the elites, as the U.S. Senate ratified the Equal Rights Amendment with a mere eight "nays." The political contours of the 1970s played out accordingly. Inflation dramatically reduced the value of the $1,000 child-exemption. Housing prices exploded as the "baby boomers" moved out to set up shop, mostly solo, and "do their own thing." As an odd mix of idealism and escapism overtook both personal responsibility and community spirit, the unifying theme became "fly now, pay later." Officeholders encouraged voters to assume the U.S. could enjoy good jobs without capital formation; energy price controls without shortages or lines; and a foreign policy without a military.
During the presidential campaigns of 1972 and '76, no candidate pushed "family values." And the deepest dilemmas of human nature were dispatched with happy talk -- as when Bernard concluded to U.S. News: "I think the more we learn about sexuality, male and female, the less anxiety there will be." She exulted: "In 1965, who in the world would ever have dreamed we would be as far along as we are today?"
Then came the 1980s -- and hard times for feminism. Some say it collapsed during 1984, with the twin fizzles of the "Comparable Worth" concept and Geraldine Ferraro for Vice-President; or in November 1983, when the long-suffering Equal Rights Amendment failed its final House of Representatives test. Yet these were the symbols of the ideological and "big government" side of the movement. Managerially and economically, the cause of wider opportunity for women never stopped gaining ground, for reasons better explained by generational style and information technology.
Microchip technology allowed Boomers (of both genders) to create new economic territory via start-ups, even if no one besides their customers paid much attention. Or they earned it, inch by grueling inch, in the Fortune 500 -- a much easier story to cover. As the 1980s progressed, and women had accumulated 10, 15 and 20 years in the country's large corporations, a flock of books appeared. Looking over their premises and conclusions offers a portrait of this first wave of what might be called "feminism in business."From the Streets to the Suites
In 1985, Liz Roman Gallese completed a book -- Women Like Us -- about the female graduates of Harvard Business School in '75. She approached all 88 women who started there in the Fall of 1973. Of those 88, she interviewed the impressive total of 82 (78 of whom graduated in '75).
Gallese avoided using "composites" and centered her book on six women who, as a group, accurately personify the aggregate. Most of the interviews took place in 1981, with certain follow-ups, and hence the profiles stop less than eight years after HBS granted them "the ticket." But, as of that point, only one of the six had reached the dream balance -- married, mother of three, with husband and career in-sync -- indicated by the term “Superwoman.”
Gallese was intellectually honest in letting the facts, of both the small group and the larger sample, take her to places she didn’t expect: "Over the course of my research for this project, one finding that struck me as among the most surprising was that such a large percentage of the women of the Class of 1975 appeared to be ambivalent about their careers, or had actually made the decision to cut back, tone down, or in some cases leave the workforce entirely. I began noticing this pattern as early as the Fall of 1980, when I was conducting my first interviews, and by the time I completed my investigation a year later, I was shocked to have to conclude that fully two-fifths of the group fit this pattern."
Her epilogue concluded that Corporate America "is still very much a male milieu, and women who succeed [in it] are most often those who choose to live their lives as men in a man's world" -- mostly, let it be noted, "without a wife" (or, in the case of one of the six, a flexible and unambitious husband who only earned the contempt and coldness of the wife whose aspirations he tried to support).
Of the whole entire set of interviewees, Gallese summed up the score six years after graduation: "About a third of the group were working for corporations; another fifth were working for banks, insurance companies, and real-estate firms. Fourteen were consultants. Nine were working for nonprofit concerns. Six were entrepreneurs" -- the only time, sadly, this word or that option ever turns up in Gallese's rigorous book. "Three were teaching at the college level. Three were pursuing graduate degrees. Titles and income levels, for the full-time workers, were on the whole impressive."
On the social and emotional side, the "group paid a price for whatever assimilation they achieved. Well into the fourth decade of their lives, fewer than three-fifths of the group were married, and fully one-third were still single. Another 13 had been divorced; four had remarried. Of the married and divorced women, only 24 had children."
Rather than call for legislative "solutions" or turn against the weak of will in the sample, Gallese came to a humane moderation, borne of her own experiences (watching her daughter grow, as well as clashing with a female superior near the end of her 14 years as a Wall Street Journal reporter): "The women's reluctance to forfeit their entire selves for the sake of their careers...strikes me as a particularly thoughtful and intelligent attitude. For, no matter how often a particular women may choose to deny the feminine side of herself, the fact remains that women as a group are society's child-bearers, and that is something else that will not change..." If so, the "willingness to pull back" from male-style process-mania and corporate absorption signals a "reluctance to forfeit what is uniquely theirs -- their femininity."
Two years later, Unnecessary Choices, a book by Edith Gilson with Susan Kane, detailed "the hidden life of the executive woman." There it is, right off the bat, in the opening paragraph of the introduction: "This book...is about the high price we pay for emulating men."
After 250 responses to a 20-page survey that had gone to 500 of an original universe of 1,700, Gilson and Kane declared: "Women aren't at, or even near, the point where they can 'have it all' -- a lasting marriage; children; and a satisfying, successful, career." To judge from the 250 respondents, "the odds that an executive woman will never marry are four times greater than for the average American woman... Less than half (48%) of our women are currently married -- compared with a whopping 96% of executive men [from a different but similar 1982 survey by Korn/Ferry International]. What's more, just 11% of the men have been divorced, compared with nearly four times as many of our women."
Both books -- Unnecessary Choices and Women Like Us -- showed penetrating the Fortune 500 to be much harder than imagined, and costly in human terms even when it worked. As a male academic friend of mine put it, "the business world was not designed by people who bear children."
On the other hand, another 50 books -- each making the same discovery -- will not cut short this social-corporate experiment by what are largely baby-boomer females. Indeed, with another decade having passed, Gallese might find that perhaps half of those 82 HBS grads from 1975 are satisfied, if not happy, and have somehow managed to round out their non-career sides without bailing out entirely on their 1970s dream.
And, no matter how gloomy some of their responses struck authors Gilson and Kane, the much larger group surveyed in-depth for Unnecessary Choices had too much invested to give up the chase entirely.The Commanding Heights Are Affirmed
Back in '92, Business Week declared: "While women have been packing the corporate pyramid base for years, it's only now that their presence is reaching critical mass. Even more important, while they still cluster in staff positions, a growing number of women are in so-called line jobs -- those integral to company profit centers."
From 1977 through '95, the number of women on Fortune 500 boards grew from 46 to 600. And Catalyst's recent survey of high-income big-company females showed they expect a quadrupling of senior-management representation -- within five years. These and similar survivors represent the "installed base" of the original 1970s assumption that, again, Corporate America was just one more set of institutions to be opened up and equalized. They have devoted their prime years to being some mix of Superwoman and Company Man. And it is helpful to study the rare ones who have pulled it off. How did they do so? And how workable is their experience to all the other women of America?
"They have not become just like men," counters an advisor to this study who has founded and staffed companies for 25 years. They did not "walk away from marriage [or] motherhood. The losers -- in terms of metaphysical success -- did. But not the winners. In general, women executives do desperately pursue the biological role of bearing and caring for children..."
"Further, my sense from contemporaries is that, once the execs get the kids past age 9 or 10, they get comfortable and have fun with it... However, before 9-10, execs often seem guilt-ridden and harried. Or maybe it is the stage of career-development that explains the shift in anxiety from women who have stayed at the career [toward] those who are just beginning? In reality, women execs cannot escape the biological role, nor do they generally want to: It is in the genes [and] they feel comfortable being feminine/mothers/etc. But they want/need or are forced to achieve some objectives that, prior to 1960, were primarily the responsibility of men."
Recent work by New York-based Catalyst, using a survey of 461 Fortune 1000 women (a 37% response-rate to a 1,250-person mailing), confirms that. "Almost all of the women sampled have been or are now married. About two-thirds have children." And three-quarters of the respondents say they bring in more than half their household income -- which would make sense, given the sample's average $248,000 in annual earnings. But forget the "Mommy Track," because: "Only 7% of them...have made use of flexible work schedules. Most instead have opted to slash sleep-time to maintain their personal lives."
In the heady early months of GOP congressional control, during a sudden national debate over Affirmative Action, this influential stratum of women was ignored. But veteran liberal strategist Ralph Neas knew what he was doing when he told USA Today 2/28/95: "Women have been the principal beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs. All the information shows that, but it has been frustrating to get our points across."
A few months later, the point was gotten across: The installed base of executive womanhood mobilized in the Spring of 1995 and choked off the congressional drive to end Affirmative Action. "That probably was a turning point," agrees JEC interviewee Toni Ford, herself a Republican, "because, if you look at the positive effects of Affirmative Action programs, those people who have benefited most are white women."
Some female entrepreneurs actually teamed up with the old-line feminists. According to Lindsey Johnson, CEO of the pro-entrepreneur group Women Inc.: "Interestingly enough, the Republicans set us up for the first real progress in working together, which was the Affirmative Action thing. In some respects, that was a silly issue to take on. What it really did was galvanize [both movements]. Women's groups were reaching out to a very broad network to say, 'This [proposal] has absolutely gotta change.' Women business-owners realized that this issue not only affects them in their workforce, but also personally. So it really crossed all boundaries."
When GOP agenda-setters belatedly realized they had gender dynamite on their hands, congressional support for abolition plunged. A year later, speaking of California's ballot proposition to end preferential group treatment in that state's public sector, Feminist Majority campaigner Katherine Spillar crowed: "What they [the GOP] had hoped would be a racial wedge issue for the Democrats is turning out to be a gender wedge issue for the Republicans" (Washington Post 6/8/96 p. A3). Where she says "for," both times, it should read "against," but her political point seems justified.
Meanwhile, on the non-political side of town, far from interest groups and corporate constraints, women by the millions have been voting against the original strategy -- rejecting a 20-year slog to create a large base of power and influence in blue-chip firms and prestigious multinationals. Business media keep spotlighting the ones who triumph -- which is fine, because, to repeat, it's always healthy to study success. As one book with a good chapter on Superwoman put it: "Few of us live that way, but we can all learn from them."
Even so, they are not the whole story; they aren't even close to being the genuine "news" these days. They are not the ones who are "humanizing" management, or reconfiguring the ownership of wealth.Eight Million Owners versus 600 Directors
Which group is changing this economy more -- the 600 women on Fortune 500 boards, backed by another 10 or 20 thousand approaching the top of the pyramid, or the 8 million female entrepreneurs now in business on their own? According to Elizabeth Larson of the Independent Women's Forum, "it's time to reevaluate what women mean by 'success.' Does it really matter that only a dozen or so of Fortune 500 companies have a woman as one of their five highest-paid executives? Or that women still make up only 5% of senior managers in the Fortune 500?"
At the start of Unnecessary Choices, "businesswomen" are set apart from (and seemingly above) "entrepreneurial or professional women," with the latter two types being trained practitioners whose focus is not management. Ignoring them, explained author Edith Gilson, "I chose to do my study on businesswomen...because I felt that, as President Coolidge said, 'The business of America is business' [and] the corporate world is where the money and power lie."
Never again will you see Calvin Coolidge summoned to further part of the feminist dream. Yet feminism is supposed to be about ownership and autonomy. Since no one owns anything in a big corporation, "power" without ownership is at best stewardship and at worst a false god. So maybe the author's present-day counterpart will make the opposite choice, and instead write about those professionals and "entrepreneurials."
Who else is doing so? Occasionally you'll see a piece in the Wall Street Journal like Sarah Lubman's "Biotech Industry Is Bonanza for Women." Two years ago, when she wrote it, out of 1,300 biotech companies, 13 had female CEOs. (For any industry, 1% of formal command by females is good news.) One told Lubman: "If you're good, you're going to go much, much farther in a small biotech company."
Even though these companies are shrinking in total numbers, reducing their executive openings, the same article reports that women took an astonishing 51% of all undergraduate bioscience degrees in 1991. Besides, it's easier to own a part of a small biotech firm than a big pharmaceutical company. Still, Lubman's piece (June 6, 1994, p. B1) is a rarity.
Surveying gender disparities on newspaper front pages earlier this spring, Judy Mann observed: "Particularly striking was the lackluster coverage of women in business, where they made up only 14% of the references on key business pages. Yet the development of women-owned businesses is one of the great economic success stories of our time."
The day before, in Investor's Business Daily, Kathleen Doler -- "Are Start-Ups the Route Past the 'Silicon Ceiling'?" -- sought to fill this gap: "Numbers on women-owned technology firms aren't available," she wrote. "But female entrepreneurs seem to be everywhere in Silicon Valley. "Her mid-length piece (900 words) managed to cover a lot of ground; it also had some great quotes, including this one from JEC interviewee Marleen McDaniel: "I think the risk factor of a start-up is equal to working at AT&T. There's no safe place to work anymore."
To its credit, Forbes breaks from its siblings and routinely profiles smaller growth firms -- but not even Forbes has paid much heed to the surge in female business-ownership. Over at Financial World, female subscribers routinely complain to the editors -- and receive responses like this: "FW's editorial policy is to concentrate on companies with annual sales of at least $1 billion. Sad to say, few such companies are run by women."
If the business press itself misreads, and thus downplays, the real opportunity for women to create and own enterprises, the old-line women's groups seem blind to it. Because feminist academics only know "women and economics " in terms of two extremes -- either individual victimization or mega-aggregates (e.g. "the feminization of poverty") -- they don't know how to cover the story of exploding female ownership of enterprise. Along with the mainstream press, they keep hoping to equalize big business. Its debilitating mazes have been diagrammed to death. When will enough people get tired of rewriting that story and go to where the good news is?Not Sure They Deserve the Big Salaries and Titles
In the Spring of '95, the national director of NAFE (the National Association of Female Executives) penned a painful column asking: "How do we get 'taken seriously'?" A male friend with 40 years of corporate experience told her the primary executive difference between the genders was this: "Men always think they're doing a terrific job."
But women, she paraphrased him saying, "were never sure they deserved the big money or the big titles -- even when they were directly responsible for bringing in the big bucks." (This accords nicely with Liz Gallese's discovery a decade earlier.) "Male executives, this former CEO reported, would lose money, lose accounts, work poorly as team players -- and then demand raises and promotions based on their performance." If any male thought this noteworthy enough to write a book about, it would be called “The Joy Of Being Oblivious” (a trait that serves us males much less well outside the corporate hierarchy).
Also in ‘95, in America's Competitive Secret, Judy B. Rosener noted: "The interactive style involves managing in a collaborative rather than top-down fashion. It is characterized by the use of a reward system that values group as well as individual contributions, the empowerment of workers at all levels, multidirectional feedback and a strong emphasis on interpersonal as well as technical skills... It is the style many professional women tend to prefer. Yet, because it differs from the male command-and-control style, women have not been viewed as potential leaders."
Still in 1995, Fortune magazine's Marketing Research division and Dan Yankelovich's firm mailed out questionnaires to 6,000 top- and middle-management female subscribers, along with 1,000 males. (Of the latter group, 231 responded, or 23%. Of the 6,000 women addressees, 1,882 answered, making for a 31% turnout.) And? "The existence of a male-dominated corporate culture was cited by 91% of the women and 75% of the men as the #1 barrier to advancement of women."
That culture and its toll have also been summed up by two writers -- Deborah Swiss and Judith Walker -- who absorbed 902 surveys of, and did 52 interviews with, Harvard Business School graduates. Here is their composite:  "She holds no doubt that Superwoman is dead, but she sees no clear replacement..."  "She doesn't quite fit the traditional roles at home or at work."  "She no longer wants to be like the men in her profession."  "Her children are her highest priority [and of course she] recognizes the potentially fragile balance in dual-career couples."  "She is physically exhausted and tired of fighting seemingly never-ending battles for equality in the office."
Their 1993 book -- Women And The Work/Family Dilemma -- also offers a marvelous metaphorical takeoff, via this quote from Harvard MBA Alice Richmond: "In my 20s and 30s, I had the strength and will to fight. I believed I could win. At 40, I can't understand what prize I thought I'd be winning. If it was self-assurance, I got what I wanted... [But] what else is the corporation offering? It's hard to get excited about bashing your head against a glass ceiling: Every time you pull back to take a running start at it, you see your own reflection."“Most Say They Will Never Go Back"
In 1990, Executive Female publisher George Tunick wrote: "[M]ore men than women take chances; men are more willing to gamble. Men are natural infighters, trained to be competitive and even enjoy a dog-eat-dog battle. Men also shoot from the hip more, throw out ideas and opinions more. Our male employers taught us we can do this, and even be off the mark, without great penalty. In my experience, women are often taught just the opposite -- again, by male employers. Women seem to be, as a result, more thoughtful, more cautious. Women are more prudent."
The only iffy part of Tunick's analysis is "as a result." Perhaps women came in being thoughtful, prudent and cautious.
One of my interviewees, Mother’s Work founder and COO Rebecca Matthias, does not dwell on gender differences -- because "I don't think of women differently, I just think about people and their abilities." But, by asking about differences in management style, I was able to get this out of her: "I do believe that, in general, women are not as aggressive as men are. To me, it doesn't come naturally to be kind of 'killer' aggressive. I'm more intellectual about it -- I kind of 'know what I want.' On a personal basis, I don't think I'm as aggressive as men are. Which is another reason I decided I wasn't gonna make it working for another corporation: I didn't think I could climb that ladder."
That's quite a tribute to the ladder's brutality or futility, because Matthias impressed a Fortune correspondent the same way she did me -- as a Type A+ bundle of energy and willpower.
Amending Matthias, Parker Sroufe, a recruiter for and sometimes manager of startups in the Northwest, says "there are also times when women must be aggressive to survive. If they don't, they and the organization suffer or even perish." Yet, apart from those flashpoints, "managers have got to understand that women are different but the job will get done -- differently, and generally just as well, but differently. If the manager does not come to understand this, they will leave talent and results on the table."
Not surprisingly, the Fortune analysis reported: "Company size...seems to have an impact on career-satisfaction. Women who work in companies with fewer than 100 employees are more likely to be 'very satisfied' with the current status of their careers than women in larger corporations."
If we let the overall numbers decide, the real story about women and big business is no longer the rare standouts, but rather the ones who -- because of some mix of Boomer individualism, Glass Ceiling, and the refusal to sacrifice family to career -- leave or avoid a corporate straitjacket sketched by almost everyone I have quoted up to this point.
The big news in the 1993 Swiss/Walker book is therefore not the story it attempts to tell -- i.e. that Superwoman is a myth, you really can't have it all, men in big companies are juveniles who simply traded their wet towels for briefcases, etc. Though publishers apparently make money by continually discovering it, that set of revelations is at least 10 years old.
Rather, the book's breakthrough is a section on self-employment: One chapter, 32 pages, called "Off the Beaten Path: The New Entrepreneurs." This part of the Swiss/Walker book is more buoyant than anything I've come across about women in business. Here, creation and ownership push aside rat races and Glass Ceilings. "[E]ach of the women we surveyed has brought her own approach to finding the balance that works for her career, her family situation, and her children. Few say they have all the flexibility they would like in their jobs, but they are close -- much closer than if they had stayed in traditional corporate structures."
The final summary point by Swiss and Walker for this group: "Most say they will never 'go back' unless they do not have a choice." No ambiguity there.
Unfortunately, the book's final 21 pages -- "what employers can do," a checklist for being a good negotiator with your boss, a Call To Action, etc. -- are mostly tactical and entirely damage-control, because they run right back to the skyscraper and its headaches. The authors had the real breakout earlier: It was handed to them by the sizable share of survey-respondents who tried self-employment and intend to keep it.
© 1996, Gregorsky Editorial Services
SOURCES, Part One -- Friendly Industries, Good News
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