How Suite It Isn’t: A Dearth of Female Bosses

The Sunday Business Section of the New York Times for December 17 contains a long, well-researched, carefully-written article by Julie Creswell, How Suite It Isn’t: A Dearth of Female Bosses. It is about the disappointingly small fraction of women who have achieved senior leadership positions in corporate America. It begins with a photo of Carol Bartz with the description, “Carol Bartz, the former chief executive of Autodesk, said that it was not uncommon for men in business meetings to assume that she was an office assistant, not a fellow corporate executive.”

It begins:

LIKE so many other women who entered corporate America in the 1970s, Carol Bartz simply wanted to make a little money. She did not harbor secret desires to run her own company or become chief executive of a large corporation. She just wanted to do a good job.

After working her way through college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison as a cocktail waitress (required uniform: red miniskirt, black fishnets and red feather in hair), Ms. Bartz graduated with a computer science degree in 1971. Tall, blonde, boisterous and ambitious, she entered the work force at a time when the promise of new professional opportunities for women was in the air.

What Ms. Bartz says she discovered, however, was that male counterparts and supervisors shook the corporate ladder ever more fiercely with each rung that she and other pioneering women of her generation ascended. But by combining a first-rate mind with hard work and decisive career moves, she managed to duck, bob and weave her way through Silicon Valley’s male-dominated technology industry in the 1980s.

By the early 1990s, Ms. Bartz had become one of the first women to run a large corporation. She garnered accolades from Wall Street and her peers for turning Autodesk into a leading international software company. This spring, Ms. Bartz stepped down as Autodesk’s chief executive, but she remains the executive chairwoman of its board.

Despite her hard-won reputation as an astute businesswoman, Ms. Bartz found herself repeatedly skipped over during a recent meeting of business and political leaders in Washington. The reason was that the men at the table assumed that she was an office assistant, not a fellow executive. “Happens all of the time,” Ms. Bartz says dryly, recalling the incident. “Sometimes I stand up. Sometimes I just ignore it.”

The contours of her long, bumpy journey to the chief executive’s suite reflect some of the gains women have made in navigating corporate hierarchies over the last 30 years, but also illustrate how rare it still is for a woman to get the keys to a company’s most powerful corner office. For decades, the pat explanation was that women simply had not been in the work force long enough; with patience, the pipeline would fill.

It goes on to describe the root cause:

Analysts and executive women also say that one of the biggest roadblocks between women and the c-suite is the thick layer of men who dominate boardrooms and corner offices across the country. “The men in the boardroom and the men at the top are choosing and tend to choose who they are comfortable with: other men,” Ms. Bartz says.

The article later says:

CORPORATE boards remain, for the most part, clubby and male-dominated worlds where members have attended many of the same schools, dress the same and represent a single social class, says Douglas M. Branson, a professor of corporate governance at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. In his new book, “No Seat at the Table: How Corporate Governance and Law Keep Women Out of the Boardroom,” he argues that boards can minimize their isolation from larger social issues by adding women. Others agree.

“Women on boards are the ones who pay attention to the pool of employees and succession planning and whether there are women and people of color coming up in those succession plans,” says Vicki W. Kramer, a management consultant and co-author of a study, “Critical Mass on Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance,” that was released this fall by the Wellesley Centers for Women.

Through interviews with 12 C.E.O.’s and 50 women who served on a combined 175 boards of Fortune 1000 companies, the study examined how the dynamics and issues discussed in the boardroom changed as more women were added to the mix. A single woman on a board is typically viewed as a “token woman” and is unlikely to drive female-related issues because she does not want to be seen as a one-issue director, Ms. Kramer says.

The addition of a second woman to the board only slightly changes the environment. The women sometimes feel the need to stay away from each other, worried that it will appear as if they are conspiring against the men on the board.

The tipping point is the presence of three women on a board. “Somehow, at three, gender goes away and they are much less concerned about being seen together,” Ms. Kramer says.

Still, the number of corporations with three or more women on the board is fairly limited. Only 76 boards among the Fortune 500 have three or more female members. Ms. Wilderotter herself started off as the lone woman on nearly all the 14 boards of which she has been a member over the years, with the exception of those at Xerox and the McClatchy Company. She says she is most proud of the fact that she never left a board without a woman on it. “I would finesse myself onto the nominating committee and try to populate boards with women,” she says, laughing.

It concludes with:

Ms. Mulcahy, who has been at Xerox for 30 years, says she was lucky to inherit a company in which “enlightened leaders” long ago had built an infrastructure of recruiting and sourcing and development that has created a diverse team of leaders at the top.

“I feel fortunate because this is a company that understood the value of inclusiveness before it was in vogue because it believed it was the best way to keep talent,” Ms. Mulcahy says. “But you have to keep focusing on it. This doesn’t happen by accident. But it helps to have a culture that has a history of practicing this.”

Looking forward, Ms. Wilderotter says change in the c-suite will occur only if chief executives lead by example and begin adding different voices to their leadership teams.

“I don’t think it’s about mentoring programs or diversity programs at companies — it starts with a C.E.O. who is willing to have a diverse leadership team to run his or her business,” she says. “If a C.E.O. declares through his actions that men and women are important to the performance of the company, the rest of the company takes notice and changes the paradigm.”

That is I think the key point — things will only get better if the men in senior leadership positions recognize the problem and show by example that their corporation will address it.

This is one of the reasons I’m proud to work for IBM. I’ve seen positive change in the almost twenty years I have worked for IBM. Three of my ten first-line managers have been women, among them are the two best managers I have had. I currently work for IBM’s Linux Technology Center. Its director is a woman, as are almost half of her direct reports.

IBM is also notable in allowing employees who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender to publicly acknowledge their sexuality.

And women are but one example of a minority group. Since they are half the population they constitute the largest minority group. But we need to work as hard to improve the treatment of other minority groups such as blacks, asians, hispanics and gays as we need to work to improve the lot of women.

For to not do so is to make us all a minority. To be blinded by prejudice that will not allow the talents we so desparately need to receive the proper nourishment and rewards will make our society less than it could be, at a time when — as always — we can ill afford to do so.


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  1. […] How Suite It Isnt: A Dearth of Female BossesThe Sunday Business Section of the New York Times for December 17 contains a long, well-researched, carefully-written article by Julie Creswell, How… […]

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