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Empowering Women in Business

Myths About Women in Business

Many women have been discouraged from im "going for the top" by a set of myths suggesting women are not suited for top management and that any problems are being solved gradually. These myths work to keep women "in their place" and to justify the lack of progress for women. Worse yet, these myths often place blame on women rather than on sex discrimination.

MYTH: Now that women are a third of business school graduates and a significant proportion of middle management, it is just a matter of time before we reach equality in the board rooms and in the executive suites of the corporate world.

FACT: For the most part, women are stuck in middle management - and it has nothing to do with how long they've been in business or whether they have the college degrees considered necessary to advance in management. Despite persistence and hard work, women have made only incremental gains at the top levels of business over the past two decades.

As long ago as 1968, 15% of all managers were women. Assuming it takes 15 to 25 years for a manager to become a senior executive, women today should comprise at least 15% of those at the top. But women make up only 3. 1% of senior executives at Fortune 500 companies, and at the Fortune Service 500 only 4.3% of executives are women. At the current rates of increase, it will be 475 years - or until the year 2466 - before women reach equality in executive suites.

Not even the proper credentials are enough to guarantee a woman a fair shot at the top; two separate studies show that women MBAs have always had fewer opportunities for management careers than their male counterparts. Very simply, women in business are slamming into a "glass ceiling" that prevents them from moving up the corporate ladder.

MYTH: Times are changing and the younger generation of men is more supportive of the idea of working alongside women executives in high level positions.

  • FACT: Unfortunately, the younger generation of corporate men seems to be holding tight to the negative attitudes their predecessors displayed toward women in top positions. Between 1975 and 1983, men MBA students "retained consistently negative attitudes toward women as managers, while their female counterparts were consistently positive." Nor will sex discrimination automatically decrease as the proportion of women in business increases. In fact, studies suggest that as women increase their numbers and get closer to the top, the resistance from men hardens, and discrimination becomes more open, according to Harlan and Weiss.

    MYTH: Contflicts with family and home responsibilities keep executive women from getting "to the top."

  • FACT: If you ask women executives, many believe their jobs have strengthened their family lives. Of women executives who do have families, "only a tiny minority (3%) feel that family responsibilities have hindered their careers," according to the Wall Street Journal / Gallup Survey.

    Few of the women executives reported that family conflicts had ever "prevented them from accepting a job change that would have required relocation" (only 9% of the one-third who say they ever turned down a transfer).

    Besides, executive-level women are more likely to get help from their husbands with household chores and family responsibilities. According to the Wall Street Journal / Gallup Survey, "married women ranking near the top of the corporate hierarchy...are much less likely than those with lower status to carry a heavy domestic burden." Additionally, it is easier for executive level women to combine their careers with motherhood, because they can afford to pay for child care and household services.

    MYTH: The "mommy track" is a practical way for women to "have it all" and get to the top while fullilling their child-rearing responsibilities.

  • FACT: The "mommy track" is a blatant form of institutionalized sex discrimination. It is an excuse to pay women less and to swell the ranks of middle-management by keeping women from competing for the top jobs. In effect, the "mommy track" penalizes women who have children by placing them in dead-end jobs which ask them to do essentially the same work as their male counterparts on the "fast track" - but at a fraction of the pay.

    The two-fold danger of the "mommy track" is that it provides a rationale for keeping women out of the top and in the middle or bottom, low paying positions. The reasoning goes something like this: obviously, if women cannot keep up, they deserve less pay - after all, these jobs must be easier, or how could they do them and juggle family responsibilities?

    It is interesting that talk of a "mommy track" is only directed at the most promising women executives on the "fast track" to the top. It seems that the question "Can women have it all?" is really asked as a way of challenging women who are at the top and who exercise power. No one ever asks women who are on night-time cleaning crews and who often hold one and a half other jobs while raising children whether they can "have it all."

    Besides, most women executives do not have the luxury of deciding to go on the "mommy track." In general, women are far more likely than men to be the sole supporters of their family at one time or another. To accept less pay and forego career growth opportunities, a woman would be jeopardizing her ability to adequately provide for herself and her family in the future.

    The problem is not that corporations need to provide greater flexibility to women executives balancing career and family responsibilities, but rather to provide women executives the same flexibility and choices already enjoyed by male executives. Corporations readily provide paid extended leaves of absence for male executives who have suffered heart attacks without questioning their returning status or growth potential.

    MYTH: Women executives cost the corporation more because they must divide their attention between career and family.

  • FACT: Considering the proportion of top management that is male, the likelihood is that male-linked habits will cost companies a great deal more than pregnancy ever could.

    For example, alcoholism and the problems it causes are overwhelmingly associated with males. In 1985, 11.9 million men were classified as alcohol abusers as compared to 5.7 million women. Forty-five percent of men versus 18% of women were considered moderate-to-heavy drinkers. This male-associated habit creates excessive medical costs and serious performance losses in business. Yet these deficits are tolerated and are not calculated as a "male related cost of business."

    As one observer recently put it, "How many maternity leaves could Exxon have funded with the billions of dollars that were lost because the captain of the Valdez was drunk?" - Audrey Freedman, The Conference Board.

    MYTH: Women at the top are frequently single, divorced or have no children, proving how difficult it is to combine family and career.

  • FACT: It is also true that the men at the top of corporate America exhibit very different marriage patterns compared to the national norm. Why do executive men and women show marriage patterns so divergent from the general population? The bias in the system that favors the selection of a certain type of woman - and a certain type of man - discriminates against all other types.

    The proportion of executive women who remain single (26%), who are divorced or separated (16%), and who have never had children (52%) are higher than the national norms (Wall Street Journal/Gallup Survey). In fact, the higher her ranking, the less likely the executive woman is to be married - only 46% of top corporate women are married.

    The overwhelming majority of executive men (94.6%) are married compared to 81.6% in the general population of men 45 years and older. Nearly 6% of men over 45 years are single compared to only 0.9% of executives.

    Corporate management is narrowly selecting its executives, and anyone who doesn't fit the stereotype of the "ideal corporate executive" - the "single woman" and "married family man" - is likely to be cut out when promotional decisions are made. This built-in bias conveniently ensures there will be very few women at the top.

    MYTH: Women are not as serious about their careers and often "drop out" to have children or start their own business to better accommodate their family responsibilities. As a result, they are poor investments for companies that must spend considerable amounts on executive development.

  • FACT: Women executives are no more likely to leave their jobs than men. According to studies of mobility patterns and turnover rates, if anything, women in executive positions have traditionally exhibited lower turnover rates than men, because their chances of finding another high level post were more limited.

    And there is also no evidence that executive women leave corporations to have children. In fact, a 1980 study by Catalyst found that 37% of women in two-career families return to work within 2 months of childbirth; 68% are back after 4 1/2 months; 87% are back in 8 months. A followup study in 1986 found that women at the top took even shorter pregnancy leaves of 6 to 8 weeks.

    Furthermore, there is no evidence that women are dropping off the corporate fast track to start their own businesses because of the desire to balance family and work. While it is true that more women than ever are starting their own businesses, most are past the age of 40 when child rearing responsibilities are largely ending, according to a 1984 study by Hisrich and Brush. Besides, a new business venture requires neverending attention from its owners - not leaving much time for taking on even more family duties.

    For men executives who start their own companies, the move is seen as a bold and positive career maneuver. For women, entrepreneurial ventures are seen as retreats from the corporate world and a chance to devote more time to the family.

    Corporate America take note: the "exodus" by women from corporate ranks is more likely the result of carefully calculated career decisions by women who have bumped into the glass ceiling and see little advantage in staying with the corporation.

    MYTH:Women are not suited for top management because they aren't aggressive enough and lack the self-confidence required for the top jobs.

  • FACT: Sexual stereotypes like these persist because the best defense by executive men trying to protect their privileged status is an offense that "keeps women in their place." Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, these stereotypes will be used - until women won't tolerate them anymore. And so, in the mode of fighting one old saw with another, whenever a sexist derogatory comment is made about women, find a parallel to fit men.

    Study after study shows there are more similarities in these personal traits between women and men managers than there are differences. One of the most comprehensive long-term studies done found that men and women have very similar "profiles of high power and achievement needs, high self-esteem, and high motivation to manage" (Harlan and Weiss). A separate study of 2,000 men and women managers found "a significant case of no significant difference."

    Moreover, women executives often display more modern leadership traits than men. In fact, many recent studies show than women's style of leadership varies from the style exhibited by men and that these differences may make women more effective leaders in today's business arena. These studies indicate that women's manageltent style more often encourages consensus, participation, and interaction - traits which today's employees value - whereas men's management style often reflects a basic commitment to the premise of a "hierarchy."

    MYTH: Any woman can make it to the top is she's competent and works hard. That's how men make it and, after all, the corporation is looking for the best person for the job.

    FACT: Don't we wish. That's not how men make it to the top. From all the evidence we've seen, it is clear that the corporation is not the meritocracy that we've all been led to believe. At least up until now, "who makes it to the top" appears to be as determined as much by "who you are" and "who you know" - as by "what you know."

    The most convincing example of this is found by looking at who is at the top in corporate America: more than half of the board chairmen of the Fortune 500 companies are the sons of former chairmen their single most common shared trait. (One is tempted to ask whether these men had any daughters!) What this is doing to American competitiveness and our long term future should be a big issue today for corporate America.

    MYTH: Most women senior executives suffer from the 'Queen Bee' syndrome and are not helpful to younger women below them on the corporate ladder. Or, women are their own worst enemies in the competitive corporate world.

    FACT: Since when don't men seek to be "King of the Mountain?" If anything, women executives complain about their treatment by men - not their treatment by other women. Executive women say men patronize them and they often note male chauvinism. None of the women in the Gallup Survey spoke about the attitudes of other women.

    In the Korn/Ferry survey, 57% of women executives report belonging to women's groups. The majority (56%) of women in the Gallup Survey are involved in networking with other women - "getting together regularly in groups to discuss problems and offer support." A huge majority (83%) say they "feel responsible for helping younger women advance in business. "