When Neil French claimed that the reason women don’t make it to the top in advertising because of their care giving responsibilities, he was generalizing from a few and creating problems for the many. This generalization often seeps into management thinking such that women are not given the same kinds of opportunities as their male colleagues—they get less challenging assignments and/or need to prove themselves with more lateral moves before they are promoted. Frustrated at this lack of challenge or opportunity in their jobs, they leave. And when they leave it is assumed that they do so to give care, when, more likely than not, they have taken another job. That is the vicious cycle—erroneous assumption leads to limited opportunities leads to turnover. There are things women can do and things their organizations must do. Women need to be aware of this cycle and proactively negotiate for their own opportunities. Companies need to pay attention to inequities in the assignments they give to promising women and men. They can also be more creative in how they structure work so that people, both men and women, can better manage their work and personal lives—then maybe the entire cycle will no longer be a problem.
It looks as if it is just a matter of choice when ‘Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.’ (New York Times, September 20, 2005) But stories like these, based on anecdote and small, biased samples of elite respondents can have negative and far reaching effects on young women who are set on a different career path. It is not only that these other young women may start to question their own choices, but that the organizations they hope will employ them, may start to abandon the innovative programs they have developed to keep their talent pool of women and create opportunities for them to move into significant leadership roles.
There is another story about women and their career choices. In a national study of 3028 teenage girls (of diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds) conducted by the Simmons School of management and The Committee of 200, the pre-eminent organization for women business leaders, 82% expect to work full time and 97% expect to provide financially for themselves and their families. These expectations were similar to those of the teen boys in the study. This group does not have the seeming luxury of expecting others to provide for them. Similarly, in a study of MBAs at seven business schools only 3% of the women respondents looked to others to provide financially for them. What about the boys at Yale? Do they want to opt out of family responsibilities to return to a sole breadwinner role? Not according to our study of men and women who define themselves equally as breadwinners and parents. Without experience of work place and family realities, the ‘many women at elite colleges’ may be reflecting choices their mothers made more than their own. Lacking a significant number of role models of successful working mothers, like Anne Mulcahey of Xerox, Ann Moore of Time, Andrea Jung at Avon, or Shirley M. Tilghman at Princeton, among many, many others, these ‘many women’ are in danger of closing doors they may find hard to reopen. Women who leave the work force for extended periods of time find it difficult to ramp back in, and if they do, they pay a price in earning power.
The women in our other story cannot manage career and family on their own. Not only, do they look to spouses to share in parenting and breadwinning, they also look to the organizations that employ them, to support their choices. In the past, when women were marginal players in managerial ranks, organizations treated work and personal life issues as ones of individual choice. That is no longer the case. Some of our largest and most successful organizations see advantage in creating innovative programs that enable women and men to manage their work and personal lives over the course of their careers. At Deloitte and Touche, for example, several pilot programs are underway — some to build more flexibility into how and where people work and others, such as ‘Personal Pursuits,’ to help employees who take time out to stay up to date on technology and skills and keep them connected to the firm. At Time Warner, they are piloting novel approaches that enable more people, both women and men, to take better advantage of flexible work arrangements. Investments such as these make sense only if organizations value the talent and contributions of their women and expect them to make increasing contributions over the course of their careers. If these organizations find the gender stereotype persuasive, that ‘many women’ will opt out, not just in the short run, but in the long run, incentives for these kinds of programs will dissipate. And that will mean that women in our other story will find it increasingly difficult to pursue their different career paths. That is why stories about the ‘many women,’ who are not many at all, have consequences beyond their numbers.
Carol Frohlinger adds her point of view to Patrica Kitchen’s column about names at work.
Many women who are re-entering the waged workforce have asked us for help in negotiating an arrangement that works for them — and for their prospective employers. We’ll be offering Part 1 of a two part series on September 30 at 10:30 AM EST.
Do we need to ask the question—what do women want—yet again? Extrapolating from laboratory experiments economists conducted recently about men, women and competition, John Tierney suggests that women may not get to the C-suite because they have decided that the extreme (read that “unhealthy”) competition required just isn’t worth it.
Laboratory experiments, by their design, focus on the individual or small group and so it is not surprising that we find gender differences in competition attributed to individual action. But competition is hardly a gender neutral attribute—competition, expected, accepted, and applauded in men can be read quite differently when it is played out by women.
In our research, we have found that women get tested in ways their male peers usually don’t. It may be that some women choose not to spend 16 hours a day on the trading floor— but those that do, don’t do so on a level playing field.. Out of the network, they don’t get client referrals. Their assertive behavior is viewed as aggressive or even worse. And, as a spate of current out of court settlements suggest, they are not generally treated very well by their firms.
When we suggest that the lack of progress for women is a choice women themselves make, we take the responsibility for change away from organizations. Maybe the question we should be asking instead is—do organizations realize how much they lose when they don’t pay attention to the depth and breadth of talent women bring and what can they do to change things?