MBA No Ticket to Top for Women
By Kirstin Downey Grimsley
Fifteen women had gathered to honor a female business professor at Stanford University, and all had received master's degrees in business administration in the 1970s, the first years large numbers of women had attended the program. Most had left school with dreams of heading large companies.
But as she looked around the table at women old enough to have top executive positions within reach, Muther said, she suddenly realized all of the others had walked away from the corporate world. "I was the only one who was still employed at a corporation job, other than one woman who was being downsized."
That night in 1993 "was a defining moment for me" that caused her to reexamine her life and career, said Muther, then 46 and vice president of marketing at San Jose-based Cisco Systems, a computer networking company.
Twenty years ago, the question of why no women headed large corporations had a standard answer: Too few were in the pipeline with the right combination of training, education and seasoning. That was expected to change when the women entering leading business schools arrived in the work force in the 1970s.
But today, though thousands of women have passed through business schools and into middle management, women hold only 3 percent of the top six executive positions at large Fortune 500 companies, or about 90 of 3,000 positions. Only a handful have been named a chief executive officer.
The slow ascent is a result of many factors, but few people believe it stems from women not wanting the top spots, according to a new nationwide survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. About 65 percent of Americans think women are discriminated against in getting top positions, but women are more likely to believe it with 71 percent saying so, compared with 59 percent of men.
Even now, slightly more than half of men say a major reason women aren't getting top slots is that "the doors haven't been open long enough." Fifty-seven percent of women share that view, and 60 percent also believe women are not getting there because "men don't want them to get ahead." Only 43 percent of men hold that opinion.
The women surveyed also cited family responsibilities as a major career impediment, with 55 percent saying they kept women from working as many hours as men do.
To explore why so few women complete the race to the top, The Washington Post sought out women who have reached for those jobs, interviewing 20 from across the country who received MBA degrees at three elite business schools Stanford, Harvard and Wharton from 1969 to 1979. The women were located through referrals from the schools' alumni departments and through published alumni directories.
Now ages 43 to 60, most began careers with big companies or international management consulting firms, but of the 15 who still work full time, only two remain with large, publicly traded corporations, with one other working for a large, privately owned firm.
Three others work for small companies with fewer than 50 employees; six are entrepreneurs, including two running businesses from home; five work for nonprofit organizations; one is disabled; one is retired; and one is a full-time at-home mother.
The drop-off is "the corporations' loss," said Kathleen A. Meyer, who received her degree from Stanford in 1976 and now is executive director of the Business Enterprise Trust, based in Stanford, Calif., which promotes corporate responsibility. "These are bright, motivated, honest people with integrity who got out."
Myra Strober, a professor in the Education Department at Stanford who taught in the business school during the 1970s, has monitored many of the early female graduates' careers. She said many who stepped off the career track tend to attribute the shift to individual circumstances, rather than recognizing it as part of a pattern of amorphous, institutionalized discrimination that sapped their energy for driving to CEO.
In a century that opened with women banned by law or practice from many occupations, the female MBAs pioneered a generational shift in which they combined education, marriage, family and career.
Most are in long-term marriages, with about one-fourth divorced. Nineteen have at least one child, and most have two or three. Almost all have been employed outside the home for most of their lives, and about two-thirds are the primary breadwinners in their families.
In interviews, most of the women said they forsook the goal of top-ranking management at a big public firm because the grueling work hours expected of executives made it difficult to meet family obligations. Some cited sex discrimination as a major impediment, but most were reluctant to describe themselves as having suffered discrimination, because they did not want to see themselves as victims. Still, almost all said they came to feel increasingly isolated and alone at work as they rose in the ranks, excluded from what felt like a male-only club at the top.
Ultimately, however, the change in dreams was one they chose as they sought more happiness, fulfillment and family time.
Muther was one of those.
Within a year of that dinner party, she had quit her corporate job, which paid her $460,000 in salary and bonuses in 1992, plus stock options. With $3 million of her own, she created the Three Guineas Fund, named after a Virginia Woolf essay that focused on contributing money to improve society and urged better education and career opportunities for women. The foundation tries to help women launch high-tech businesses.
"Most women don't get to retire at age 46 and set up their own foundations," said Muther, now 50, acknowledging that she had reached a privileged station thanks to her success and her Stanford degree.
Meyer also left the fast lane when she turned down a job as marketing director for an international law firm, which required 12-hour days and much travel, and instead took the job at the Business Enterprise Trust, making less than half the salary. She agonized about the decision, because, as a divorced mother of two, she worried about saving for her children's college educations.
But a couple of weeks after her decision, she said, she felt vindicated. She was on a panel that was to have included the woman who had taken the marketing job. The woman never showed, and the moderator announced she had had an unexpected business trip.
"I sat and thought, 'Boy, did I make the right decision,'," Meyer said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company