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A Female Executive Is Hard to Find

HR Magazine, June 2001Today's top executives need certain skills. Women tend to have them. So why aren't they moving up in greater numbers?

After 11 years in the Fortune 500 ranks, it was clear that Amy Glynn had moved up the career ladder quickly. In 1997 at the age of 30, she was named first vice president and Western divisional director for Citigroup. She was the only woman to reach that lofty level of management in the financial services giants largest revenue-producing region in the country.

But in 1999, she traded it all in. Glynn left her high-level position to launch her own company, The Womens Executive Network Inc. in South Boston, Mass., now one of the largest online recruiting and networking resources for professional-level women.

Why did she swap a top-tier position for the uncertainties of starting her own firm?

Her reasons were twofold. First, she saw an opportunity. She recognized there was a lack of women at the officer and director levelsand she knew, from firsthand experience, just how challenging it was to recruit and retain women to fill top-tier jobs.

"But I also saw in front of me some things that, as a woman, were likely going to affect my future career," she says. "The prospect of a heavy politicking arena ahead and visions of having a family someday ultimately led to my decision to leave."

Glynns experience is not an isolated one. In fact, it is repeated constantly at companies everywhere. For a wide variety of reasonssome complex, some simplefew women make it to the top. And if they do, many dont last.

"As women get up and into the management levels, theyre leaving," says Leslie Jenness, founder and president of the Scottsdale National Gender Institute, the training division of the National Association of Gender Diversity Training in Phoenix. "Theres no question that its one of the biggest concerns and major issues within organizations today."

Numbers Dont Lie

Women hold 43 percent of executive, administrative and managerial occupationsbut they account for less than 3 percent to 5 percent of top executive positions nationwide, according to data from the Womens Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

Not all the news is bad. Women are moving up, but slowly. The percentage of Fortune 500 companies where women hold a quarter or more of corporate officer titles has doubled since 1995, according to Catalyst, the New York-based nonprofit research and advisory organization working to advance women in business. The bad news: The doubling increased the proportion only to 10 percent.

Despite these gains, women still hold few leadership positions at large firms. Catalyst reports that 90 of last years Fortune 500 firms did not have a single female corporate officernot much progress since 1995 when 115 companies had no female officers. And only four of the Fortune 500and eight of the 1,000 largest firmshave female CEOs.

The dearth of upward mobility for women is puzzling in light of recent research, which suggests that women possess a unique combination of interpersonal and work ethic traits that seem tailor-made for the management ranks. In fact, theres mounting evidence that women, rather than men, may make better corporate managers. Two examples:

  • In a study of 425 high-level executives, female managers were rated higher than their male counterparts in 42 of 52 skills measured, according to Hagberg Consulting Group, a consulting and leadership development firm in Foster City, Calif.

  • A similar analysis of 360-degree feedback given to an even larger group58,000 managersfound that women scored higher than men in 20 of 23 management areas, according to Personnel Decisions International Corp., an HR and management consulting firm in Minneapolis.

Such findings may help explain why Catalyst research found that women are risingalbeit very slowlyinto so-called "clout" titles (those that wield the most policy-making power, such as CEO, chairman, vice chairman, president, COO, senior executive vice president and executive vice president). Last year, Catalyst found that women held 6.2 percent of such positions, up from 5.1 percent in 1999 and 1.9 percent in 1995.

But all the data beg the following questions: If women are so well-qualified and well-suited to being company leaders, why arent more of them moving to the top? Why does the disparity persist between the large number of female managers and the much smaller percentage who become top corporate officers?

"Many companies are as baffled by it as we are," says Joyce Fletcher, professor of management at the Center for Gender in Organizations at Simmons College Graduate School of Management in Boston.

While its hard to pinpoint, many factors and trends seem to explain why for women, the top ranks are elusive. Labor statistics, workforce demographics, career practices, management stereotypes and discrimination, self-perceptionsand some very basic facts of lifeall hold some of the clues for HR and its corporate leadership.

Career Interruptions

One factor affecting womens careers: They tend to leave and re-enter the workforce more than men dointerrupting their careers for childbearing, child rearing, elder care and other family and personal responsibilities.

The fact is, 80 percent of women bear children at some point in their lives, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And research shows that women are more likely than men to take on responsibility for elder care.

Further, BLS data show that 28.4 percent of working women hold part-time jobsmore than double the rate for men. As a result, compared to men, a higher percentage of womens prime working years is spent away from work, notes the Independent Womens Forum on economic issues in Arlington, Va.

"Theres no reason why a woman cant have the corner office," says Anthony Carnevale, an economist and vice president of public leadership at Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit educational testing and research organization based in Princeton, N.J. "But shell have to beat out a lot of men between the years of age 25 to 45years in which men will typically outwork women in sheer hours."

The interruptions to womens careers can affect their ability to advance in positionand pay.

Women who leave the labor market for family responsibilities often return to find that their wages lag behind those of women at comparable stages in their careers who did not leave. Many reasons account for this, suggests research from the DOLs Womens Bureau.

First, women who leave the labor force lose seniority. Second, job skills may get rusty during extended leaves or absences. And finally, employers may view gaps in work history as a signal that women who leave may do so again.

The outcome, according to the Womens Bureau: Some employers may hire women for less-important, lower-paying jobs to limit the impact of a future decision to leave. For the same reason, employers might be less willing to invest in on-the-job training for women who leave, then return to the labor force.

"In our experience, women who have their sights set on the top generally dont take time out and interrupt careers," says Mary Mattis, senior research fellow at Catalyst. "Theres a continuing perception out therea stereotypethat if they do otherwise, women arent really in it for the long term."

The Heavy Influence of Education and Experience

Statistics also show that women do not tend to choose career fields that traditionally have the highest earnings potentialor that may propel them to the top ranks of todays hottest companies or professions.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, D.C., an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, find that the number of bachelors degrees in computer and information sciences earned by women peaked in 1984 and has fallen since. Although women are pursuing business management and administration, engineering, law, medicine and dentistry in much greater numbers today than they did in the 1970s and 1980s, they still earn more degrees in education and health professions (such as nursing) than in other fields.

In addition, other experts argue that womenfor whatever reasonoften lack the specific types of valuable work experience and bottom-line business knowledge necessary to develop the kind of track record they must have to secure the top spots in corporate management.

"Women need to know what skills and experience within the company will provide them with exactly what they need to lead," says Susan H. Gebelein, executive vice president of Personnel Decisions. "Oftentimes, many women will have a series of staff functions throughout their careers, rather than line functionsthat is, those functions that make the company money."

Research bears that out: Women hold only 7.3 percent of all line officer posts (those with profit-and-loss responsibility that often lead to top spots), according to data from Catalyst.

"When it comes time to make the hiring or promotion decision," Gebelein says, "companies will look for a track record of proven results. Women need to understand and learn whats considered a successful track record and then have the chance to achieve it through a variety of business experience."

Lure of Entrepreneurship Is Strong

Theres also growing evidence that greater numbers of womenlike former Citigroup executive Glynnopt for starting their own businesses, rather than staying or fighting their way to the top.

Between 1987 and 1999, the number of women-owned firms more than doubled to 9.1 million, according to the most recent research available from the National Foundation for Women Business Owners (NFWBO) in Washington, D.C. Based on reports from the Census Bureau, the number of women-owned firms increased 16 percent between 1992 and 1997almost triple the rate of 6 percent for all firms.

In another study, NFWBO found that 51 percent of female business owners with prior private-sector experience cited the desire for more flexibility as the major reason for leaving their corporate position. In addition, 29 percent cited "glass ceiling" issues; of this group, 44 percent felt their corporate contributions had not been recognized or valued.

Interestingly, says Trish Costello, director of womens and venture capital initiatives at the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, a sponsor of the NFWBO study, "Women owners of fast-growth firms are less likely than their male counterparts to have had ... a managerial or executive professional background." That suggests that women may be jumping off the corporate ladder well before they try to climb the upper rungs.

Gender Matters in Management Style

Can gender distinctions make a difference when it comes to management styles and leadership characteristics that position both sexes for promotions?

Simmons professor Fletcher thinks so. She suggests that the vision of what makes a competent leader is changing to better match todays business needs. And that shift may give women the upper hand because they are more in tune with todays working environment, experts say.

The reason: Many companies are no longer looking for top-down authority figures but want more collaborative, inclusive approaches to leadership within flatter and leaner companies.

But the old view hasnt totally given way yet.

"The masculine image of the heroic leader is amazingly resilient, in spite of the needs in todays economy," says Fletcher. She notes that some women who have made it to the top have indeed "mimicked a male role"that is, they may be single, or have no children or have a stay-at-home spouse who ends up taking a secondary career role or none at all. In fact, among the top five women on last years Fortune list of the "50 Most Powerful Women in Business," four have husbands who dont work, according to the magazine.

"So, the ideal worker is seen as having a masculine ideal, and this masculine image still exists," she says. "But you dont need to be a hero to be a leader; you dont need a John Wayne necessarily anymore. In a true leader, analytic skills and relational skills are not separate," she says. "The trick is integrating them."

Recent research, in fact, refutes the widely held view that women are more democratic, while men are more autocratic at work. Women managers are more results-oriented at work, while their male counterparts engage in more business analysis and strategic planning, according to a study that compared the management styles of 900 female and 900 male managers by Management Research Group, an HR consulting and assessment firm in Portland, Maine.

Who makes the best leader overall? Bosses rated men and women equally able. Subordinates and peers, however, rated women slightly higher, the study shows.

In another survey of 293 marketing executives (144 men; 149 women) by Copernicus, a marketing consulting and research firm in Auburndale, Mass., 73 percent of respondents perceive men as making decisions without input from others, while only 20 percent said the same of women. Female executives, on the other hand, were perceived to be more effective in building consensus when making decisions (84 percent of women, 60 percent of men) and more thoughtful in their decision-making processes (90 percent of women versus 71 percent of men), carefully examining many options before acting.

The study by Hagberg Consulting noted other differences. "In essence, we found that men are better at tooting their own horn and getting recognized for their efforts, but women are actually better at focusing on the work and getting it done," says Ellen L. Shuck, senior consultant at Hagberg Consulting.

But even those attributes could derail womens chances for the top spots. Leadership often is defined as being able to wield influence, be persuasive and craft a strategic view. The problem: Women may not be pursuing jobs or experiences where they can get access to managing and contributing to the big picture that top leadership demands.

"Its not that they havent been in the pipeline long enough; its about what theyve done in the pipeline," notes Catalysts Mattis.

Some say its also simply a matter of who makes the hiring and promotion decisions. "Whos choosing the CEO at most companies?" asks Shuck. "The board of directors, mainlywhich tends to be white males. Were not yet gender-blind," she adds. "And with few women in the really top spots, theres not enough of a critical mass to exert change."

Self-Perceptions Derail Best Intentions

There are still other factors at play that affect a womans rise to the top. One is troubling and controversial: Women can sometimes be their own worst enemies, experts say.

Research conducted by Hagberg Consulting, for example, suggests that basic personality characteristicscombined with management behavior and strategies women have used to succeed at mid-management levelsare preventing them from breaking through to the top echelons of management.

What are some of the obstacles women create for themselves? Theyre reluctant to take risks without having covered all the bases, Shuck says, which can hinder them from being given the high-risk assignments that offer visibility and upward mobility.

Her view is borne out by the Copernicus study, which found that men are seen as risk-oriented (81 percent of respondents applied this attribute to men, 53 percent to women). Also, men are perceived as making decisions quickly (82 percent of respondents said this statement applied to men, while only 48 percent said it applied to women).

Women also have a tendency to marry their sense of responsibility with concern for the team, Hagbergs research shows. While such characteristics lead to high marks by co-workers or peers, the downside is that women can easily get mired in the details, too. That leads them to take on too much responsibility instead of leading by example, according to Shuck. "The men in the executive suite are creating the game plan, not worrying about ironing the uniforms," she says.

But theres some evidence that women also may limit themselves in making personal career choices due to a confidence problem, says research by Turknett Leadership Group in Atlanta. In comparing 85 women and 255 men at the director or vice president level, Turknetts research found that the only competency on which women managers score lower than men is self-esteem.

"A lack of confidence is always self-limiting when it comes to career planning," says Carolyn Turknett, executive vice president and co-owner.

And it also can lead more women to quit their jobs altogether. If they perceive pay or promotion disparity, minorities and women are more likely than whites and men to look outside their current employer for a better job, rather than fighting for a raise or promotion, according to a study by management professor Maryann Albrecht at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Whites and men are more likely to stay and demand more from their current position, her study showed.

The message for HR: "Dont assume everythings fine," says Personnel Decisions Gebelein. Be aggressive from both a policy and practice standpoint. Look at whos in your companys high potential listif its all men, ask why.

"HR should ask people what they want to do in their careers and then listen carefully to make sure they aim high enough," she says. In her research, Gebelein has found that when asked about their career aspirations, women and minorities frequently look only about two positions up from their own.

"Women especially have learned, in a sense, not to aspire higher," she says. "Thats where HR can helpto teach managers and corporate leaders to get people to think higher. Plant the dream for them."

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.


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