By Richard Morin
By Richard Morin
Want to smash through the glass ceiling? Here's some advice to working women from a woman who did: Don't be attractive. Don't be too smart. Don't be assertive. Pretend you're not a woman. Don't be single. Don't be a mom. Don't be a divorcee.
Too harsh, perhaps. But a new and innovative survey of male and female senior executives at Fortune 1000 companies suggests that this advice, offered by one of the senior managers who participated in the poll, isn't too far off.
The women surveyed overwhelmingly said "they had to prove their ability repeatedly and needed to over-perform in order to counter negative assumptions in a predominantly male business environment," wrote Belle Rose Ragins of Marquette University in the latest issue of the Academy of Management Executive.
A majority of women executives also said they had to develop a working "style that men are comfortable with," a style that placed high valued "masculine styles and characteristics," wrote Ragins and her research colleagues, Bickley Townsend and Mary Mattis of Catalyst, a nonprofit research and consulting firm that focuses on gender issues in the workplace.
"This male managerial model places women in a double bind: if their managerial styles are feminine, they run the risk of not being viewed as effective managers, but if they adopt masculine styles viewed as appropriate for managerial roles, they may be criticized for not being feminine."
Follow-up interviews with survey participants gave voice to the inevitable frustrations that result.
"The guys can yell at each other all the time, shake hands and walk out the door, and it's perfectly comfortable for them," says one woman, a personnel director at a retail firm. "But on the rare occasion that I raise my voice, it's not accepted in the same way."
Another woman, a vice president of a consumer products company, says she had to learn "how to interact with men who had never dealt with women before.... I had to learn how to offer opinions in a way that they could be heard because I wasn't necessarily given the right to have an opinion."
These researchers surveyed randomly selected samples of 324 male CEOs and 461 female executives who held the title of vice president or higher in their firms. Their goal: To find out from CEOs and women senior executives why so few women lead America's largest corporations.
Currently, women make up nearly half of all entry and mid-level managers, up from 17 percent in 1972. But there has been far less movement at the top of corporate America. The percentage of female CEOs in Fortune 1000 companies increased from half a percent in 1979 to 2.9 percent in 1989. And a 1995 census found that 10 percent of all corporate officers were women, but just 2.4 percent of all CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies.
Why are there so few women CEOs? The gender gap revealed in these responses was enormous. Eight in 10 of the male CEOs but fewer than half of the female executives cited lack of management experience as a major reason for the absence of female CEOs. CEOs also were twice as likely as female executives to say that women haven't been in the executive track "pipeline" long enough to win the top corporate jobs. And women executives were twice as likely as the male CEOs to blame male stereotyping as a roadblock to advancement for women.
Those "startling" differences may help explain the absence of women at the very top of corporate America, Ragins wrote. "The CEOs in this study ... have no way of understanding the corporate environment faced by their female employees.... Dismantling the glass ceiling requires an accurate understanding of the overt and subtle barriers to advancement faced by women."
The survey found other, similarly striking differences in the attitudes of male CEOs and women executives. More than half 54 percent of the CEOs agreed with the statement that "male managers are often intimidated by or have difficulty managing women." Forty percent of the women but only 20 percent of the male CEOs agreed that many white men in their companies feared reverse discrimination, according to the survey.
These researchers also found strikingly different views on just how far companies have come in leveling the playing field for women. Half of all CEOs but only one in four female executives said that opportunities had "greatly" improved over the past five years. "In contrast, 39 percent of the women but only 6 percent of the CEOs said opportunities had improved slightly or not at all," they say.
Ragins and her colleagues caution that those numbers alone don't necessarily mean that men are overly optimistic or women too pessimistic in their assessments of progress. "While it can be argued that women who break through the glass ceiling are probably best equipped to assess its density, no definitive answer to this question can be found," they say.
One thing their survey and other research makes clear is that perceptions matter. They note that one recent study found eight in 10 female mid-level managers reported leaving their last organization because of the glass ceiling. American corporations have to attack these attitudes directly, or risk losing capable female executives, Ragins says.
"Whatever the reality, the perception that there are limited opportunities for advancement is sufficient for turnover decisions and reduced career aspirations among talented female employees," the authors conclude. "The barriers do not have to be real to be effective."
Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company