Showers for employees? "Never," said Intel Corp.'s chief executive officer Andy Grove, who is known to be opinionated and stubborn. And seldom wrong.

In the 22 years since the high-tech company was founded in Silicon Valley, Intel has done things differently. In California, that means it opted for no employee gymnasium, no volleyball courts. People were expected to show up for work on time. A couple of years ago when Intel workers began clamoring for showers in the building, Grove refused. Every time the issue was raised again, he said, "Never."

But Carlene Ellis, now Intel's vice president of human resources, eventually convinced him otherwise. She even had an idea how the respected CEO could comfortably do a full circle on the issue. "The day the first shower was opened, Andy put on a 1920s bathing suit at the office. I did too," says Ellis, probably the highest ranking woman in the industry. "We've got a picture of it here that says, 'Never say never.' It was not my best pose though."

On the contrary. Over the years when women were entering the career market en masse and striving for acceptance, the dominant business climate for most of them has been somber. Many believed that to win the game of corporate hooks and ladders required a poker-faced mentality. Imitation thought to be the sincerest form of career development, many women took on a veneer tougher than the CEO's mahogany desk.

"The Power Pumps Era" is how Barbara Mackoff refers to those days. "The '70s and '80s saw women being haunted by the prospect of not being taken seriously," says Mackoff, a management psychologist who has been a consultant to such corporate giants as AT&T and Dupont. "There were carloads of books about this for women. It all boiled down to the same solemn advice -- stop smiling, wear a monotone suit, use power gestures ... become a stereotypic oh-so-serious woman."

But, after 20 years of trying to outman the men, not many women have reached the top. And lately "the glass ceiling," a euphemism for what upward-bound and ambitious corporate females are said to crash into as they keep their eye on the prize, has become proverbial.

Fortune magazine, which chronicles the life and times of bigwig businesses, stated the prognosis most bluntly this summer: "When will women in decent numbers finally make it into the highest ranks of corporate America? The short answer: not in this millennium."

Proving the point, it scoured through listings of the highest-paid officers and directors of 700 public companies in the industrial and service sectors: Of 4,012 of these executives, 19 were women. Not even a half of 1 percent.

"Try as women might to fit into the male business milieu, men still think they do a lousy job of it," states Fortune. "Many believe corporate women are weak in interpersonal skills, a dimension that's largely ineffable but critical to achieving a high corporate position where competence is assumed and chemistry often becomes key... . " The article concludes with this advice: "Look like a lady, act like a man, work like a dog."

Funny, huh? No? Well, lighten up, ladies.

That's what Mackoff believes must happen to crack the glass ceiling. "My advice runs very counter to that approach for the woman with her shirt buttoned up to her lower lip," says the author of "What Mona Lisa Knew: A Woman's Guide to Getting Ahead in Business by Lightening Up" (Lowell House, $17.95). "The sound that is going to break the glass ceiling is going to be the sound of laughter."

Women have been so teeth-grittingly intent on success, says Mackoff, that they've overlooked one important characteristic that has always parlayed into savoir faire in business -- humor. "It is a paradox to say that women must be funny in order to be taken seriously," she says. "But humor is a powerful communication tool that forges bonds with colleagues and with clients. Millions of women took the other advice and concentrated on perfecting their work rather than building working alliances... . Now women have to realize that getting in on the joke is critical."

Mackoff tells of the management seminar that first tickled her corporate funny bone theory. Having practiced her own professional frown, she had to conduct a workshop for a federal agency while battling the flu. She asked the participants to state their expectations for the session. Responses were tentative, friendly. Until she got to one menacing man in his fifties, his short-sleeved white shirt revealing a tattoo. "My expectation," he said, "is that I don't want to be here."

Not quite herself, Mackoff replied, "Since you are here, it looks like your worst expectation has been met." The antagonist laughed; so did the others. And Mackoff was on a roll that hasn't stopped. "Let's frame it in terms of the art of being at ease," she says. "It means being able to see what's funny about a tight spot."

A study published three years ago, conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership, found evidence to support that. The nonprofit group based in Greensboro, N.C., compared successful and unsuccessful careers of men and women in general management. While "having a commanding image and forceful presentation of self" was one important factor for the successful women, an equally important one was "easy to be with," says Ellen Van Velor, the center's director of leadership technologies research and coauthor of the 1987 book, "Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America's Largest Corporations?" (Addison Wesley, $15.95).

"People were surprised that these women, who had come on strong enough in their career to get to the general management level, were in fact real nice, natural people able to make other people feel at ease... . Beyond a sense of humor, they had a sense of balance and perspective, of what's worth getting upset over and what's not, the ability to laugh at themselves and shuck off the little things."

A 22-year employee who has emerged near the top of Arco Chemical Co.'s totem pole at corporate headquarters in Newtown Square, Pa., Yvonne Norris says a sense of humor has helped. "If you are overly sensitive to a lot of things that are being said, you tend to lose perspective and you tend to lose the edge."

As a black woman, Norris knows this better than most. Once, at a meeting on minority recruiting, another exec mumbled about people with "chips on their shoulders." With a gentle quip, Norris moved the discussion back to the real issue. "If I had turned out to be an uptight black female, there would never have been open communications in front of me," she says. "And I prefer that things are discussed openly."

Same thing goes for men at the office who call her "girl" or "gal," terms staunch feminists consider to be gender diminutives. "I have friends who see it as a put-down," she says. "I don't interpret it that way, even if that's the intent. I just think that if someone wants to call me 'girl,' he's entitled to his opinion, no matter how stupid it might be."

In retort, Norris has been known to separate the men from the boys: "Sometimes I just call them 'boys,' if they're acting like boys. Believe me, I have two sons, 11 and 15, and some days I feel like I haven't left home."

Sally Helgesen believes it's a classic Catch-22. "You want to be taken seriously. Yet to be a success is to be able to enjoy your work," says the author of "The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership" (Doubleday, $19.95). In the past six months, Helgesen has spoken to business leaders, managers and professional women in 30 cities. She says women are getting the punch line about business ambition. "I see women wanting to enjoy their work and not willing to let men define the standard of behavior that they have to live up to or down to."

The Fortune 500 companies where glass ceilings are most often documented "have been fairly inhospitable to women," she says. "They haven't necessarily been a place where enjoying your work is encouraged. That makes people uptight and rigid."

Intel's Carlene Ellis agrees: "Thank God I work at a company that laughs at itself. If you were at a company with a lot of starched white shirts and blue ties, maybe it wouldn't come so easy." But Mackoff says she's observed many a corporate black-tie dinner and board meetings with senior executives, all men, at the head table. "Almost always, there's laughter," she says. "The light touch is the shared currency. ... It's how you gain access."

She points to da Vinci's masterpiece of a faintly smiling woman, the Mona Lisa, which inspired the title of her book. "What is most notable about her is the effect she has on people," says Mackoff. "Ultimately, the art of lightening up and including humor in your portfolio is having a womanly strength like Mona Lisa which makes you both approachable and powerful. And makes other people wonder, what is that woman smiling about?"