Delaware Online | Why women find it hard to reach the top rung


Published: 6 August 2011

Women have been in the workforce for decades, but many will acknowledge that it is still a man’s world. According to the most recent data from Catalyst Research, women now make up nearly half — 46.7 percent — of America’s workforce and hold 51.5 percent of management, professional and related occupations. Yet only 7.6 percent of the Fortune 500 top earners are women, and women make up only 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

Many women say the corner office remains off-limits because the unwritten rules of the workplace continue to favor men.

Companies today “are building on masculine norms,” stated Anne Hardy, a vice president of technology strategy at SAP Labs, during a panel at the recent Wharton Global Alumni Forum in San Francisco. Managers need to think about how to create environments in which women can “thrive and grow,” she says, and which might inspire them to make a long-term commitment to a company or start their own.

But what would a company built on women’s norms look like? Women business leaders and Wharton experts say the workplace would probably function very differently — and have a different look and feel — if it were built by and for women.

Wendy McDevitt pictures the workspace resembling the corporate offices of Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters (URBN), where she serves as co-president of Anthropologie, one of the company’s brands. A female-focused fashion and home accessory retailer, Anthropologie has created a workspace to reflect the kind of environment its customers want, McDevitt says.”We almost think of the customer first and then work backwards.”

The result: koi ponds with running water, a farmers market, onsite chefs and bicycles that allow for quick jaunts between buildings. “We created a workplace that has a lot of light … and open space.”

Both the founder and CEO of Anthropologie’s parent company are men, proving that men can create an office environment with women’s preferences in mind, McDevitt points out. Likewise, not every workplace run by a woman would necessarily cater to women’s norms.

“Personalities of women are very different,” she says. “Just because a woman is running a company or brand, that doesn’t mean that it would be run in the way that every woman in the organization would want it run.”

Yet a look at top women-run companies does reveal some interesting similarities, according to Marsha Firestone, president and founder of the Women Presidents’ Organization. The membership organization for women entrepreneurs of private companies with annual revenues of $2 million or more regularly polls its members about how they do business. The most recent surveys show that 100 percent of the 50 fastest growing women-led companies provide health insurance, 88 percent provide 401(k)s, 80 percent provide life insurance and 66 percent offer telecommuting. Nationwide, 62 percent of private companies offer health insurance and 47 percent offer retirement benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; 59 percent of private company employees have access to life insurance and just 5 percent have access to flexible workplace policies.

“So what I have come to believe is that it’s not just anecdotal that women tend to be more nurturing,” Firestone says. “I think they are, and I think these statistics verify that.”

Stereotypes and biases that keep women from advancing are “more subtle” than in the past and “possibly unintentional,” but they still exist, says Monica McGrath, a human-resources consultant, executive coach and adjunct professor of management at Wharton. She recalls an executive management meeting she once witnessed as a consultant, in which a woman was being considered for an overseas post. Although she was clearly the most qualified, one manager remarked that the woman probably would not want the job because she had two small children.

“They actually thought that this was a sensitive remark,” McGrath points out. In the end, the company did offer the position to the woman, who accepted. “They were not planning to be discriminatory. A company based on women’s norms would be more sensitive to these issues.”

The need to address women’s norms may be most acute in fields such as engineering, where men predominate. Research shows that women are more likely to leave an engineering career than other fields. According to the National Science Foundation, women make up 20 percent of engineering graduates, but only 11 percent of professional engineers are women.

Co-author Nadya A. Fouad, a professor of educational psychology at UW-Milwaukee and director of the Center for the Study of the Workplace, wonders if some advancement opportunities for women may slip by because they are communicated casually among men in informal settings, such as the golf course or even the restroom. “If you’re in the network, you know what those next steps will be” to take advantage of an opportunity, she says, “and if you’re out of that informal network, you may just not know.”

Sluggish advancement sends women packing in other fields as well.

“We know that women leave jobs at a higher rate than men,” says Deborah Small, a professor of marketing and psychology at Wharton. “Part of it might be that they get upset because they find out that someone else got a better deal than them, or they think that they should have been offered something” but were not given the opportunity.

Yet according to Small’s research, women’s difficulties may be due in part to a failure to negotiate. Small has found that women don’t initiate negotiations as much as men do. “It’s not that they’re not as good at negotiating,” she says: It’s that they don’t initiate the negotiation in the first place.

This could be a problem, since negotiation may be more prevalent in today’s workplace than in the past, Small points out. Employment contracts are less fixed and standardized, and perks such as flextime might be open for negotiation long after an employee starts at the company. In a more negotiable work environment, says Small, “it may be that women are at a disadvantage because they are not noticing or not taking the opportunities to negotiate for themselves.”

Women face more ambiguity than men about what clothing is appropriate in the workplace, or what messages their clothing might send. Traditionally, men’s workplace norms call for a suit, but this doesn’t translate well to women’s clothing. Even women’s suits don’t offer a perfect equivalent. Brooks says she is conscious of this in her own department, where the ratio of men to women is about 8 to 1. “They just wake up in the morning and put on pants and a shirt, and they’re good to go,” Brooks says.

Her challenge is finding outfits that strike the right note: professional but not awkwardly formal, conservative but not uptight, relaxed but not inappropriately casual. Every item of clothing could inadvertently send the wrong message. “There’s so many things that I think about, and I know the men in the office don’t think about those things because they don’t have to,” she says.

Delaware Online | Why women find it hard to reach the top rung

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