Speaking of glacial change...

... last week the Economist published an article about the conundrum of the glass ceiling, stating that although "research by Catalyst found a strong correlation between the number of women in top executive positions and financial performance among Fortune 500 companies between 1996 and 2000" the following facts still hold true:

  • 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.
  • [In a] large sample of British quoted companies, 65% had no women on their board at all in 2003.
  • Female managers' earnings now average 72% of their male colleagues'.
  • The management-consulting business.... loses twice as many women as men from the middle rungs of its career ladder.

How do they explain the persistence of the glass ceiling? They mention women's inability to access informal social networks, stereotyping of women as less capable of leadership, a lack of visible female role models, the flattening of corporate structures (which may make it more difficult to get promoted), and women's greater struggle with work-life issues (including taking time off to care for children, parents, and household demands). They also explore the possibility that women are less ambitious for top jobs, and that corporations are losing their best women to the more flexible world of entrepreneurial businesses.

What leverage do we have as a society to change this finding? And no, I don't believe the finding that diversity is associated with increased performance will be enough on its own to overcome stereotypes and unconscious patterns of informal social networking. We need to work from at least three angles:

  • We have to start young, and we have to work on males' beliefs about themselves, not just women's beliefs about their capacity. Some of that work is already being done -- my husband, for example, pulls his weight with the "second shift" tasks in our household. Still, he's uncomfortable with the idea of taking a paid paternity leave, even though his company offers one, and women will never make it to the top in large numbers if men continue to believe it's their responsibility to take care of their households only through paid work.
  • We have to find new ways of organizing careers that appeal to many (rather than being relegated to minority status as mommy tracks) and that allow people to move into and out of full-time work. In the US, that may mean moving away from associating health insurance with employment -- a huge political task.
  • And we have to build networks of supporters for these initiatives which include members of the current, largely male, elite. This probably involves appealing to the generational protectiveness of CEOs and corporate directors who are fathers of daughters.

This is a much bigger change than simply aiming to raise breastfeeding rates in Northeast Ohio. It will probably still be underway when my daughter gives birth to her first child. Nevertheless, the same principles apply, beginning with Margaret Mead's axiom ("never doubt that a small group...") and including some of the additions recently suggested by Zaid over at WorldChanging. He suggests this addendum to Mead's famous quote:

"For a small group of thoughtful and committed people to change the world, they must believe that change is possible. They must be ready to act the moment a stuck system becomes liquid. They will only be effective if they display collective intelligence. Finally, they must live in a small world."


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The glass ceiling is something that has always been fascinating. Your three angles for achieving your goals seem well founded, but I am wondering what your goals are? How far do you think the numbers need to rise to be "fair"?

I read an article in the New York Times Magazine (archived here) entitled "The He Hormone". To quote:

"Finance? Business? Here, where the testosterone-driven differences may well be more subtly psychological, and where men may dominate by discrimination rather than merit, is the trickiest arena. Testosterone-induced impatience may lead to poor decision-making, but low-testosterone risk aversion may lead to an inability to seize business opportunities. Perhaps it is safest to say that unequal numbers of men and women in these spheres is not prima facie evidence of sexism. We should do everything we can to ensure equal access, but it is foolish to insist that numerical inequality is always a function of bias rather than biology. This doesn't mean we shouldn't worry about individual cases of injustice; just that we shouldn't be shocked if gender inequality endures. And we should recognize that affirmative action for women (and men) in all arenas is an inherently utopian project."

It is a long read, but a great article. I am interested in your thoughts.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on July 27, 2005 11:20 AM

I'll check out the "He Hormone" article when I get a chance. It seems to be related to what the Economist article said about differences in ambition... is that how you see the testosterone connection?

To answer your other question, I'd be happy with any company that had women as 30 percent or more of its directors and senior executives (because Rosabeth Moss Kanter's research shows that below that proportion, minorities are subject to stereotypes much more frequently and are less likely to be treated as individuals).

We could start with a real paid parental leave policy -- we don't have to emulate Sweden, but there are far too many working women in the USA who don't even get 6 weeks of maternity leave paid for, because they changed jobs in the year before their baby was born, or because they work in a smaller company. I'd be happy with six months paid parental leave, with at least three months reserved for the mother -- paid for in the same way that we support social security and disability recipients.

Posted by Sandy Kristin Piderit on July 27, 2005 01:59 PM

You blog... "They mention women's inability to access informal social networks..."

Yup. That's a big one. I have seen this in my data of many social network analyses in large organizations.

There is also a story that will be in my book that illustrates the fine line between young professionals being put into fast-tracks and not. It all revolves areound little snippets of info they find in ther social networks.

Posted by Valdis on July 31, 2005 09:33 AM

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