A TOP EXECUTIVE of a major corporation asked me to find out what was happening to the bright young women the company had recently placed on the managerial ladder. All of them were getting the lowest ratings. Rosabeth Moss Kanter's Men and Women of the Corporation would have been a help. I have read no better study of how bureaucracies handicap the careers of talented women. Based on observation, interviews and surveys in a company she calls "Industrial Supply Corporation," Kanter shows how limited opportunity, powerlessness and tokenism influence overly cautious, negativism or self-effacing behavior which appears to justify stereotypes of women secretaries, salespeople and managers.

In the case I studied, male supervisors were afraid to give women either the support or criticism they needed. Kanter, an associate professor of sociology at Yale, found this and much more at Indsco. As she points out, business uncertainties and the company's need for loyalty favors choosing managers who are similar in attitude to the ones already running things. It is harder to trust and to communicate with those who are different, like women. If women try to conform, they are forced to endure male adolescent testing like drinking and dirty jokes and are invited to betray their own sex by agreeing that they are exceptions. Even if they overcome all this, they will likely be forced into stereotypes of "seductress," "pet kid sister," "mother," or tough and dangerous "iron maiden." No wonder that some capable women at Indsco prefer the protected role of executive secretary to the emotional stress of the managerial firing line.

What can be done about it? Kanter writes, "I wanted to show that structural change is a necessity if the human problems of modern bureaucracies are to be solved." However, when she tries to apply her theories to solutions, contradictions seem to emerge.

For the men and women of the corporation, success means career advancement. At one point, Kanter says that everyone would have an equal chance if there were greater opportunity and better career counselling. Yet, she is also aware that unbridled careerism further dehumanizes bureaucracy, increasing the competition, eroding concern for others, and reinforcing the adolescent macho culture. So it has been at companies which give everyone a chance to make the first team and replace managers as soon as they begin to slip. There will always be few places at the top, and as one Indsco manager tells Kanter, "It's okay for women to have these jobs as long as they don't go zooming by me ."

If everyone has a clear shot, who in fact will reach the top? On the one hand, Kanter discards explanations of success based on different values, capabilities or talents. Her main point is that people are basically the same; it is the situation, role or stereotype which makes them look good or bad. On the other hand, she refers to specific individuals as "highly talented," "highly innovative," and "personally charismatic," and she seems to recognize that not everyone wants to pay the price of reaching the top.

The solution, if there is one for large organizations, requires opportunities and challenges that do not depend on everyone's climbing the ladder, and there must be respect for men and women who are not careerists, including the right to have a say over the way their work is organized. Ideally, everyone in the company should become something of a social scientist and have a chance to study alternatives based on social - human as well as economic - technical criteria. But this brings us to a final contradiction. Kanter calls for structural reforms, but who will make them? At the top, she finds only "ordinary people" who are prisoners of their roles. Yet, alternatives to dehumanized bureaucracy have been developed only by extraordinary leadership.