Smoothing the Way

By Susan J. Wells Jun 1, 2001
Reuse Permissions

HR Magazine, June 2001A number of factors impede women's progress to the executive ranks. Here's how some companies make the trip easier.

When Brenda Barnes resigned four years ago as head of PepsiCo Inc.'s North American beverage business, her departure drew considerable media attention. Barnes gave up her job as one of the highest-ranking women corporate officers in America to spend more time with her family and to end the conflicts she experienced between work and personal matters.

Barnes departure was seen as something of a watershed event, focusing the work/life spotlight on the executive suite and crystallizing the tug-of-war often faced by working women seeking the top jobs.

Of course, some women have managed to strike an acceptable work/life balance without help from their employers. But for many women, family demands have been an enduring obstacle to advancement. In fact, a survey of more than 500 working women in large metropolitan areas revealed that 64 percent planned to quit--or already had quit--a job to obtain a more flexible schedule, according to staffing and consulting firm Flexible Resources Inc. in Greenwich, Conn.

Work/life issues are only one of the factors that can impede a woman's career climb. Other factors that may hold women back also may demand increased corporate attention, says Mary Mattis, senior research fellow at Catalyst, a New York nonprofit organization working to advance women in business.

These additional barriers include the lack of networking opportunities and mentors for women, the absence of a critical mass of women in an organization and a lack of accountability and top-level support for programs that help up-and-coming female employees.

Fortunately, some employers are tackling these issues and logging some impressive successes.

Networking and Mentoring

Experts agree that a dearth of women in upper-level positions can make it harder for women in lower-level jobs to move up.

Women aren't in on all the informal networks yet, says Carolyn Turknett, executive vice president and co-owner of Turknett Leadership Group in Atlanta. A lot goes on on the golf course, but a lot of women still aren't there.

To create networking opportunities for women, Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International Inc. holds a series of leadership conferences for women leaders from company outposts worldwide. The conferences feature speakers who offer practical tips for career advancement and who share their experiences for cultivating female talent. But some of the best opportunities at these gatherings are the most informal--the lunches, chance meetings and after-hours networking, says Marriott President and Chief Operating Officer William Shaw.

An absence of women at the top also means there are fewer potential female mentors within the company, notes Molly Shepard, president of Shepard Executive Resources/The Leaders Edge, a consulting and training company for women in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Women really need a sponsor in their organizations--someone who can help pull them up through the ranks, says Catalysts Mattis.

As a result, failure to promote women to top levels of management can be a self-perpetuating cycle. But some companies have been successful at breaking--or at least cracking--that cycle.

For example, Deloitte & Touche LLP in New York has put significant effort into providing women with greater mentoring opportunities. The company launched its widely regarded Women's Initiative in 1993, and has beefed up its mentoring focus in recent months.

Since the Women's Initiative began, the number of key leadership positions held by women at Deloitte has grown from 14 to 118 last year. What's more, the number of women partners and directors has jumped from 97 in 1993 to 368 in 2000and Deloitte now has a greater percentage of women in these positions than any other Big Five accounting firm.

All of that is great, but its still not enough, says Sue Molina, national director for the advancement of women at Deloitte. Within the last year, the firm has added 30 external coaches for both women and men in management positions.

The firm also is planning to implement a more proactive mentoring program within its senior management ranks, says Molina. The program is for both men and women, although identifying and equipping women with the company skills and savvy they need is a key goal. We want to involve most of our senior partners and say to them, We want you to spend 200 hours over the next year with a manager and were going to be checking in with you to see how it's going, she says. We don't want to put people in jobs and forget about them. We want to make sure they succeed at the highest levels.

The firm is convinced that its revenue and service growth is directly linked to the progress of the Women's Initiative, says Molina. And that's leading Deloitte to set a new and aggressive goal for 200535 percent of the partners promoted will be women, up from about 22 percent expected this year, Molina says.

Flexibility in Numbers?

At Seattle-based retailer Nordstrom Inc., women dominate the workforce, outnumbering men by more than two to one. So its not too surprising that women hold 70 percent of managerial/supervisory jobs and head up 85 of 120 stores.

But numbers alone don't explain the company's success, says Nordstrom spokeswoman Paula Weigand. Its really a cultural thing, too. Our CEO started here selling shoes at first. Everybody on the sales floor knows they have the opportunity to move as high up as they want.

But at many companies, the number of women on the payroll does seem to influence family friendliness, which can help women advance. A 1998 study by the Families and Work Institute in New York found that when women make up a larger proportion of the total workforce, companies are more likely to provide a number of flexible options--such as job sharing, part-time work, time off for parents to attend school and child care functions, longer maternity leaves and so forth.

Further, the study found that companies with a larger proportion of female top executives are more likely to provide work/life assistance. Of companies where women held half or more of the top executive jobs, 82 percent provided flextime and 19 percent provided child care. By contrast, at companies with no female executives in top posts, 56 percent provided flextime and only 3 percent offered child care.

At home-mortgage financier Fannie Mae in Washington, D.C., a comprehensive elder care assistance program got top-level commitment after four senior executives experienced the need personally, says Judy Dale, director of the companys Health and Work/Life Center. Forty-seven percent of the companys management group are women, and research shows that women are most often the caregivers in family situations.

At the McLean, Va., office of Deloitte & Touche, women and men historically were hired in equal numbers, says Joan Schweizer, a director in the audit department. Yet more men successfully logged the dozen or so years normally needed to apply for a position as partner. Fewer women stuck around, so fewer applied for or earned these prize positions.

When Deloitte tried to correct such problems by launching the Women's Initiative, Schweizer was tasked with helping to develop retention and advancement strategies for her local office. The fruits of her labor included creating networking sessions with male and female company executives and with local female business leaders.

One of the most effective initiatives, however, involved establishing more widely accepted and formal flexible work arrangements.

Previously, the office had no formal program in place. And that did little to help Lynne Noonan, who in 1995 was having difficulty balancing a 70-hour workweek with her responsibilities as a new mother. So Noonan left for a smaller accounting firm and the promise of a more reasonable workload.

When the local Deloitte office instituted its formal flexible program, Noonan had a strong incentive to return. In 1997 she rejoined the firm and signed a contract to work 80 percent of the hours normally expected of her position. (She later amended her contract and increased her workload to 90 percent.)

The arrangement allows Noonan to work fulltime from January to March, when the workload is heaviest. In the spring and fall, when the weather improves, she takes off a few days a week to spend with her two daughters, who are now 5 years and 7 months old.

Without a flexible schedule, the 32-year-old Noonan wouldn't be at Deloitte and Touche or any of its competitors. I think without the option of flextime, I couldn't work at a Big Five firm, she says. I don't know what other options I would have to allow me to advance and learn at the pace I want to.

If Noonan has benefited, so has Deloitte & Touche. Hired as a staff accountant in 1991, Noonan has moved two rungs up the corporate ladder and was slated to move up a third to senior manager in May. A year spent away from the firm and the reduced workload of her flexible schedule have slowed her advance to partner, she admits, but she is on track and hopes to make it in three or four years.

That hardly seemed an option when she left the firm six years ago. Flextime, she says, has allowed me to pursue a career I want to pursue.

Accountability Is Crucial

During the past two years, Marriott has undertaken a successful and aggressive Women's Leadership Development initiative that holds senior management accountable for the advancement of women leaders. As a result, since 1998, the number of women holding executive-level positions at Marriott has increased 72 percent.

One of the programs requirements: Marriott executives who anticipate senior-level openings and who don't have at least one minority or female candidate must develop a strategy to ensure a diverse slate of applicants. Those who don't ensure such diversity risk some compensation: Year-end bonuses are tied directly to measurable objectives for promoting women and implementing programs to develop female leaders.

Accountability--especially when it involves compensation--gets peoples' attention, COO Shaw said in a February speech outlining the company's initiative.

There's got to be a mechanism in place that assures accountability, agrees Catalysts Mattis. These efforts will only have teeth if someone's overseeing them.

At New York-based American Express, CEO Kenneth Chenault reviews quarterly reports that analyze hiring efforts that measure the extent to which diverse candidates are considered for every open position at all levels of the organization. Chenault conducts follow-up discussions with the managers or executives in charge if the results fall short, the company says.

And AmEx's Leadership Competency Model--basically a set of performance evaluation tools--is used to set expectations and coach managers on key elements of leadership, including diversity.

Ensuring a diverse slate of job candidates and conducting a rigorous talent review to retain high-performers helped increase the number of senior-level women from 19 percent in 1990 to 31 percent last year, says Bet Franzone, American Express spokeswoman. Women now make up 17.6 percent of the company's corporate officers, compared to an average of 12.5 percent at the nations largest companies, according to Catalysts measures.

Top-Level Support

HR is the department that provides the tools for diversity initiatives, says Catalysts Mattis, but they cant do it without absolute commitment from the top.

At Baxter Healthcare Corp., based in Deerfield, Ill., that commitment is communicated by Chairman and CEO Harry Jansen Kraemer Jr. in a creative, attention-getting way.

Every other month, he pens a newsletter called CEO Update for the company intranet. In a section he calls 'On the Homefront,' he discusses news from his own household. A typical column might talk about his daughters soccer games, sons school interests or the birthday gifts his kids gave him. He once related how one of his children put a can of soda in the oven. When Kraemer preheated the oven, the can blew up and everyone in the house ran in to see what happened, except the child who perpetrated the incident.

The implicit message behind the columns: This CEO recognizes the need for work/life balance, says Alice Campbell, director of community relations and work/life initiatives at Baxter. He totally reinforces, supports and hones the message and that certainly has helped us.

Baxter's Work and Life Strategic Initiative began with an employee survey five years ago, which ended up refuting commonly held beliefs about work-life issues. For example, more men (49 percent) than women (39 percent) reported looking for a new job because of work/life conflicts, and 42 percent of full-time respondents of both genders reported problems with achieving balance. The study's findings added up to a strong business rationale for flexibility, so Baxter set out to build a corporate culture that supports it from the top down.

Job postings now indicate when a position lends itself to a flexible arrangement. Employees can search for jobs by type of alternate work arrangement, and roughly 20 percent of jobs offer some type of flexible arrangement. The percentage of employees using alternative work arrangements has doubled from 7 percent to 15 percent. Women's representation has increased 8 percent at the manager level, nearly 18 percent at the director level and almost 30 percent at the vice president level.

While we can't say for sure that there's​ a direct link there, we have to believe our initiatives had to have an important effect, says Campbell.

Susan J. Wells is a business journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area with 17 years of experience covering business news and workforce issues.
Reuse Permissions


Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network

Join Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect