How about those working women? Suing companies, lobbying bosses, networking nonstop with other women, taking on the workplaces that have kept them down. It seems the women of today will stop at nothing to try to get ahead in the workplace battle of the sexes.
And yet, where does it get them? Women comprise nearly half of full-time workers and half of managers, but they are only 16 percent of corporate officers and barely 1 percent of CEOs in the nation's richest 500 companies. Why can't they improve those rates?
After reporting on their maneuvers for several years now, I've concluded that these warriors are using the wrong weapons to get ahead. Suing for advancement may make a splash in the news, and women's networks might get women more resources from their employers, but these activities are often perceived as selfish by the very men with whom the women will have to work. To get into the executive suite, women have to show one critical thing -- that they can lead men.
This reality was underscored by last month's ruling by an arbitration panel in a discrimination case against financial services giant Merrill Lynch. The panel ruled that the firm had to rehire a former financial analyst, Hydie Sumner, and send her through its management assessment program because it had denied her this opportunity more than a decade earlier.
If Sumner becomes a manager at Merrill, she might find that she's won the battle, but lost the war for hearts and minds. Companies aren't terribly fond of employees who sue them. Merrill's lawyers argued in a public hearing that if Sumner were rehired, she might sue them again if she didn't get what she wanted. They have reason to wonder. In 1991, the year she started working for Merrill, Sumner sued her previous employer. Her quest for reinstatement at Merrill is part of a 1998 class-action lawsuit that was joined by 900 current and former female financial analysts who claimed that the firm had denied them lucrative accounts and promotions. And her lawyer told me that Sumner has spoken out against discrimination in her current workplace.
She's not alone. At least four other women who were involved in the class-action suit against Merrill went on to sue or threaten to sue other companies. Sumner has received $2.2 million in compensation from her case against Merrill. But in trying to teach the companies a lesson in how to treat women, these serial suers may have slowed the cause, by bogging companies and careers down in legal wrangles.
Once a woman understands how the courts identify gender discrimination, it's pretty easy to recognize it everywhere she goes. Take a look at your local supermarket. If all the cashiers are female and all the managers are male, it might be a case of statistical discrimination and job segregation. Take a look at the Web sites of America's largest corporations where just a couple of women are listed as executives. All of these organizations are ripe for lawsuits. In fact, I would bet that almost every major corporation in the United States has been sued for gender discrimination. I can't prove it because these suits are often settled in secrecy. But the litigation approach has hardly forced regime change.
In 1994, Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at MIT, suspected that a lawsuit might only alienate her male bosses. So she took a different tack. She formed a lobbying group of other female science professors to try to improve their standing. They compared what the guys got in terms of laboratory and office space, grants, awards and administrative positions with what the gals got. When the president of MIT saw the discrepancy, he announced that the institution had unconsciously discriminated and made amends. Some women got bigger salaries, others got a boost to their 401(k)s, and Hopkins got an enormous laboratory and an ongoing grant to deepen her genetics research. This war booty -- I mean, victory in resources -- made Hopkins happier and more productive in her day-to-day work, she told me. "Looking back, I sure was lucky," she wrote in a recent e-mail. "Many women who try to take this on are not as lucky, I believe."
Yet there's collateral damage in any war. Hopkins herself has never been tapped to hold a top spot in the university's administration. Neither has the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jane Eisner, who in 1997 organized an employee salary review when female reporters at the paper suspected -- largely incorrectly, it turned out -- that they weren't being paid the same as their male counterparts. Eisner, who was then the editorial page editor and the highest-ranking woman at the paper, tried to be the honest broker. But she said she was extremely disappointed two years later not to be selected as managing editor. Still, she went on to become a columnist, and she frequently writes about women's issues.
Although Hopkins and Eisner showed leadership, I believe that the risks they took were not fully appreciated. They were seen to be looking out for one group instead of the whole organization, and this may have proved key to their inability to rise further. Chief executives have to be trusted to act on behalf of everyone in an organization, men and women.
While men used to complain that women hadn't played in organized sports and didn't know how to work as part of a team, they don't seem to like it when women form their own teams. When women started a networking group at General Electric in 1997, several men at the company whined that the women were trying to gain unfair advantage. These men conveniently overlooked the access they themselves had to informal networks such as playing sports or socializing with the other male higher-ups, and resented the women for helping each other fulfill their ambitions.
It's almost as if women who show leadership in their company by organizing groups that are designed to mentor women become too identified with a "woman's cause" -- with being, dare I say, sexist? No one likes to think of herself as sexist. But the men at the top don't like to be told that they are sexist, either. That's why they hire women from the outside, to prove that they are enlightened, and to avoid promoting the activists. The Inquirer and MIT both recently hired women for their top jobs, in fact -- perhaps in part thanks to Eisner's and Hopkins's activism -- but both were brought in from the outside.
In my research to find out how women get to the top, I've found that at least half of the women who are executives at the nation's richest companies were imported from the outside rather than groomed from within. Women's route to the top is different from men's, most of whom come from the inside.
If more women wish to work their way up through an organization, they ought be aware that their male counterparts may not trust them to lead them after they take an activist stance. For every woman who suffers from frustrated ambition, at least one, if not two, three or four of her male colleagues are also nursing the same disappointment. Men, who tend to be the lifers of an organization, would seem to have an innate commitment to improving its function.
A statistical analysis performed as part of the women's class action against Merrill Lynch showed that men as well as women lost out because of the favoritism that managers used in distributing accounts. Some men weren't anointed with the biggest accounts because they didn't play golf with the manager, or they hadn't gone to the right schools, or they weren't in the same church.
Men have been at war against the forces of career failure much longer than women have. It's time for women to stop seeing the problems of achievement at work merely in terms of men vs. women. A farther-reaching approach would be to join forces with men who also bear the brunt of bosses' inconsistent procedures and unfair practices. Nobody likes to be led by someone who engages in favoritism. It's bad for morale and bad for business. Employees of both genders have to join the same team, the same army if they're going to improve their overall opportunities for success. Women have to prove that they can lead men, by showing that they are willing to tackle the complexities of reward and success that men have struggled with for generations.
It's hardly a smooth escalator ride into the executive offices of any company. Rising stars, both men and women, get bumped off or fall off along the way. The climb is not only arduous, but long. It takes an average of 30 years to make chief executive officer.
Hydie Sumner, now 49, probably doesn't have enough time left in her career to become a CEO, and we'll never know if she had the right stuff. But according to her lawyer, Merrill Lynch has offered her the opportunity to become a sales manager without going through the management training program. While this would be a boost to her career, the ongoing test for Sumner -- and for other women like her -- will be to show employees whether her activism can benefit not just herself, but both the men and the women of the company she would serve.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan E. Reed is a journalist in Cambridge, Mass., who writes frequently about business. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the American Prospect and the New Republic, among other publications.