The Waiting Game: Women Make Strides, But Men Stay Firmly in Top Company Jobs

Women Make Strides, But Men Stay Firmly In Top Company Jobs — Female Management Gains Are Impeded by Culture Still Dominated by Males — From Ford Motor to Sara Lee

The Wall Street Journal
Rochelle Sharpe

Thirty years after the Civil Rights Act barred sex discrimination in the workplace, the debate over women’s progress in corporate America boils down to this: You’ve come a long way — maybe.

Women have moved into non-clerical white-collar jobs in droves. They held 46% of all such positions at the companies reporting to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1992, up from 22% in the late 1960s.

But women aren’t matching these gains in management. A Wall Street Journal analysis shows that women still held less than a third of the managerial jobs in the 38,059 companies that reported to the EEOC in 1992, the latest year for which data is available. And among 200 of the nation’s biggest companies analyzed by the Journal, they held just one-fourth of the jobs classified by the EEOC as “officials and managers” — a broad category that includes a wide variety of supervisory posts, from the manager of the janitorial service to the CEO of the company.

At the vice presidential level, women make up an even smaller percentage — less than 5% in 1990 according to Catalyst, a nonprofit research group in New York that studies women in business.

The issue of women’s progress in management is especially sensitive in these days of corporate streamlining, when many men, in particular, are losing jobs. Between 1982 and 1992, men lost a net 93,000 management jobs and women gained a net 520,000, according to the Journal study. Some men, facing unemployment or reduced status and power, feel beleaguered by what seems like the constant push of women behind them, asking for more and more. “As a proportion of the managerial workforce, women have gained fairly considerably,” says Howard Hayghe, economist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Journal’s analysis shows that women held 30.5% of managerial jobs in l992, up from 21.7% in l982. (In 1992 at Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the Journal, 26.0% of managers were women.)

Yet in spite of the men’s losses and women’s gains, men continue to hold the bulk of management jobs and, unless growth rates change considerably, will hold them for a long time. At the current pace, women will not achieve parity with male managers for another 20 to 30 years.

This wasn’t supposed to be the path of women’s progress. For years, the argument has been that once more women entered the pipeline and earned solid business credentials, their numbers in the management ranks would rise rapidly. Women are in the pipeline; they have earned credentials; their educational levels are almost on a par with men. But they aren’t even close to closing the managerial gap.

Many women say that the Catch-22 to greater representation lies in the simple fact that 15.1% of all male employees in the work force are managers and only 7.5% of all women are managers. As long as the percentages of male managers remain high, the culture remains mostly male and, women say, indifferent or hostile to their advancement. Women say they are ignored, not taken seriously and shunted into support jobs far from the company’s core business, where there is little chance of breaking through the glass ceiling.

Many companies just shrug their corporate shoulders, wondering what they should do about women — if anything. But even those that make extraordinary efforts to recruit and promote women, or institute family-friendly policies, often fail to make the culture hospitable to women.

“The culture is more important than policy,” says Rose Jonas, a consultant who formerly worked as a personnel manager for Monsanto Co. “If the culture doesn’t change, nothing will change for women.” Consider Ford Motor Co., which has a male/female management ratio of 22 to 1: 4.4% of its officials and managers are women, according to the Journal’s analysis. Jack Hall, vice president of employee relations, says that Ford’s challenges are much greater than other firms because of its history as a blue-collar, male-dominated company in the Midwest. This makes it difficult to compete with newer, more glamorous companies for the highly sought-after women with technical degrees. “We’re not Microsoft. We’re not the high-tech Silicon Valley,” he says.

But Ford isn’t General Motors Corp., either. GM, just across town, had 11.7% female managers in 1992, according to the Journal analysis, and Chrysler Corp. had 7.8%. (Ford questions whether it is fair to compare the three companies, since each may report differently to the EEOC. But looking only at their manufacturing units, Ford comes out at 4.0%, GM at 9.9% and Chrysler at 5.9%.)

At Ford, where until last summer the women’s bathroom doors were painted pink, some male executives still treat women as though they are invisible, says 46-year-old Renee Lerche, manager of employee and education planning. Ms. Lerche wasn’t initially included in the company’s new committee to review their recruiting strategy, she says, even though she is in charge of all diversity work.

“I used to worry that they didn’t like me or they felt competitive,” Ms. Lerche says. “But now I’ve reached the conclusion that they wouldn’t even see it as competition.” Rather than be offended by such oversights, she says she now asks to be included in important meetings, and her colleagues are happy to oblige.

Many women who succeed at companies discover they can’t simply wait for the culture to accept them. “Women need to change themselves to fit the corporation, and then figure out how to change the corporate culture,” says Ms. Jonas, the consultant.

Linda Miller, 43, who became Ford’s first female plant manager last November, is a good example of the kind of woman that gets ahead at the company. She shares with her male colleagues a fanaticism about cars, even dismantling engines in her spare bedroom.

Now manager of Ford’s engine and fuel-tank plant in Dearborn, Mich., and married to a Ford plant manager in Cleveland, Ms. Miller has lived in a different city from her husband for half of their 10-year marriage — sometimes, in a different country. She speaks of her need to be flexible to pursue her career: “If being in the same house with your husband is critical, that’s a barrier.”

Ms. Miller believes Ford has fewer women managers than GM and Chrysler because of the company’s hiring freeze in the early 1980s, which she calls “one of our biggest mistakes.” It was a time, she says, when many women were getting jobs at car companies, yet at Ford, two of her female supervisors were laid off.

Lately, the auto maker has launched an aggressive recruitment campaign for women and is developing a corporate strategy that will focus on training as well as changing the company culture to accommodate women. “If we don’t change the culture, we’re not going to survive,” says Jack Hall.

DuPont Co., on the other hand, is often cited as being one of the nation’s friendliest companies for female workers with families and one that has made real efforts, on the policy level, to recruit women. The company set stiff recruiting goals in 1979, which it has met or exceeded every year since. It launched a diversity sensitivity training program in 1982, so far ahead of other companies that it became a national model. It started a special succession planning program, where individual women’s careers are analyzed for gaps in experience. It has a sexual-harassment policy, a rape-prevention program, a day-care center, flextime, flexplace, even an executive whose job title is “Director of Upward Mobility.”

Still, in 1992 women made up only 9.3% of managers at DuPont, or 925 of the 9,975 management jobs. Though the percentage has increased from 4.5% in 1982, DuPont has one of the lowest percentages of female managers in the basic-materials industry, according to the Journal’s analysis.

Partly, the company says, this is due to cutbacks. DuPont slashed its senior management by 50% since 1985; seven layers of management have been eliminated between the CEO and the plant. This often means that as women get more and more eligible for promotion, there is simply no job for them. “In many ways, the track has disappeared” for women, says Faith Wohl, who until recently was DuPont director of human-resource initiatives. “It is a painful irony that we got everybody all dressed up, but we have nowhere to go.”

DuPont’s family-friendly policies clearly haven’t made huge inroads into bringing women into management or changing the culture. Some ambitious women don’t use them, feeling that it puts them on the “mommy track.” Others don’t need them. And many female DuPont employees believe that while Chairman Edgar Woolard Jr. is firmly committed to diversity, there is a whole level of managers beneath him who aren’t comfortable working with women.

Mary Lou Arey left DuPont two years ago and launched a diversity consulting firm called Respect Inc. after she became convinced she would never move higher in the company. Ms. Arey, 53, who devised the sensitivity training programs that brought DuPont acclaim, says she was perceived as too vocal on women’s issues. She noticed that male colleagues had a hard time adjusting to her expressive personal style, which she characterizes as the opposite of the unemotional demeanor of most DuPont men.

Ms. Wohl, 57, who now works for the federal government, agrees that the subtle, cultural attitudes that pervade DuPont can derail careers. “We’ve been the ultimate example of a hierarchical, male-dominated corporate culture,” she says. By instituting progressive, women-friendly programs, she says, “We ruled out everything except something which is the most elusive of all — culture.”

The upside to bright, aggressive women leaving corporations is that they are starting their own businesses and creating environments that reflect their own management styles. Women owned 32.2% of all sole proprietorships as of 1990, compared with 23% in 1977, according to the Small Business Administration. In fact, some women now look upon corporations as a place to get experience before moving on.

But while this may be good for some women, it doesn’t help companies that want to increase their female ranks — and it helps perpetuate the male-dominated culture that many women find daunting.

Rather than wait for women to climb the rungs of power (the trickle-up approach), Sara Lee Corp. started hiring women into high-level jobs during the 1980s and watched the cultural changes trickle down. “The more women in top management jobs, the more women are attracted to them,” says Gary Grom, senior vice president of human resources.

Suddenly, women lower in the company had solid proof they could make it to the top, he says. When Judy Sprieser, 40, president and CEO of the Sara Lee bakery division, tours the plants, she says, “Invariably, a woman on the plant line will pull me aside and say, `We’re so excited you’re up there.’ ”

When executives want to hire more female managers, they can turn to their top females, who have wide networks of qualified candidates. At 36.2%, the company has one of the highest percentages of women in the consumer noncyclical industry group, according to the Journal’s analysis.

These changes took a solid commitment from Chairman John Bryan, a former civil-rights activist who became Sara Lee’s CEO in 1976. “We decided to apply the same techniques we do with everything else. We set targets,” says Mr. Bryan.

Some Sara Lee targets for the year 2000: 20% of the company’s 55 division presidents will be female, up from 11% last year, and 30% of its top 500 managers will be women, up from 1993’s 17%. The CEO tied executives’ bonuses to the plan, too, giving managers a chance to earn as much as 7% — at least $7,000 — of their base salaries for reaching the objectives.

“We are the largest company in the world named for a woman, a distinction we are proud of,” says Mr. Bryan. “It gives us a little bit of responsibility to be ahead of the curve on women’s issues.” Since many of Sara Lee’s products, such as its Hanes panty hose, are designed for women, Mr. Bryan says it didn’t make sense to have “a bunch of old men sitting around trying to figure out the business.”

Mr. Bryan thinks diverse management improves a company’s creativity, a view he suspects other CEOs may not share. “There’s a secret belief this is not worth the effort,” he says. And this, he believes, is the main reason the companies have so few female executives. “They think it’s sort of dangerous for the business.”

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