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Cracks in the Glass Ceiling

September 1, 2000
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JanetHanson didn’t initially set out to start her own firm. She was perfectly happy atGoldman, Sachs & Co., as vice president and co-manager of money market sales (theirfirst woman sales manager) and then as VP of marketing for Goldman Sachs Asset Management.But reality got in the way. After she took time off to have her two children, upwardmobility seemed blocked and lateral moves were ho-hum. And since she felt that GoldmanSachs was the best, she had no interest in any of the firm’s competitors.

National Association for Female ExecutivesCatalystNational Foundation for Women Business OwnersCatalystConference Board

“Myonly option? To start my own firm,” says Hanson, who started Milestone CapitalManagement. She also snatched up some of the other female talent from the firm, women whowere looking for opportunity and the flexibility to have a balanced personal and worklife.

Hansonisn’t so unusual. Although the glass isn’t shattered, women today have more andmore opportunities for challenge and mobility to prove and stretch themselves. But whenfrustrated by inflexible work environments and stubborn barriers to the top echelons, theyare less tolerant of glass ceilings and glass walls. So what are they doing? They’releaving to start their own businesses, to work for smaller firms, and to go to competitorsthat offer more of what they want.

“Whatwas happening five years ago might as well have been 500 years ago,” says Hanson.“With regard to talented women (and people in general), what’s happening todayis strikingly different because of the technology revolution. The past doesn’t apply.At the end of the day, it’s all about money. If a company can link its prosperity orprofitability back to wise management decisions from the standpoint of personnel, thatmeans you have the best and the brightest working for you -- and they are not all guys.”

Ifthe past doesn’t apply, the present and future suggest a mixed picture. While thereis parity in the general workforce, and growing numbers of women in business schools andthe professions, there are still organizations where obstacles exist. For example, whileindustries such as financials, transportation, publishing, and tobacco have women in morethan 20 percent of corporate officer positions, industries such as computers and textileshave less than 5 percent. And, although women make up almost 50 percent of managementranks, they hold only 11 percent of corporate jobs with real clout. (See statistics in“The Facts, Ma’am”).

Onthe other hand, according to a recent Business Week article, skills needed for new economyjobs are those that women tend to have in abundance: problem solving and the ability tograsp and use information. Furthermore, according to the Women’s Research &Education Institute in Washington, D.C., women currently between the ages of 25 and 35have more education than men in the same age group.

Technologyis intensifying the fissures in the glass barriers. “Young women are bailing [fromthe corporate world] much faster than they used to,” says Hanson. “It used to bethat women were left out of locker room conversation and the Old Boy network, and overtime their ability to communicate [and have influence] started to decline. Now, women haveaccess to information through the Internet and their own networks, and because of theeconomic boom of the last decade, no one is going to spend years unhappily in anyposition.”

Someorganizations overcome existing barriers

Whydo companies lose female talent? High-powered women stated four reasons for leaving theirjobs to start firms: the need for more flexibility (51 percent), the glass ceiling (29percent), unhappiness with the work environment (28 percent), and lack of challenge (22percent), according to a major 1998 study conducted by Catalyst, the National Foundationfor Women Business Owners, the Committee of 200, and Salomon Smith Barney.

Inthe report, “Women Entrepreneurs: Why Companies Lose Female Talent And What They CanDo About It,” the women defined the construction of the glass ceiling: theircontributions were not recognized or valued; they were not taken seriously; they feltisolated as one of few women or minorities; they were excluded from informal networks; orthey were excluded from training opportunities. Many said they faced inhospitablecorporate cultures.

Forwomen to succeed, it’s essential to crack through existing stereotypes and harmfulcorporate cultures, no matter how subtle and unintended. Ask Mary Ellen Rodgers, thenational director for the retention and advancement of women at Deloitte & Touche LLP,and she’ll tell you the culture realignment must be a continuing focal point of theorganization if it wants to change.

Thecompany speaks from experience. In 1992, it created a task force to examine women’sstatus in the organization. Although it was hiring women at an equal rate to men, theywere leaving the firm at higher rates, and had disappointingly low representation at thepartnership level (hovering around 5 percent). The women said they were leaving because ofperceived obstacles to career opportunities (such as lack of mentors, role models,networking opportunities) and the difficulty of balancing their work and family lives.

Deloitte& Touche went to work. In 1993, it established The Initiative for the Retention andAdvancement of Women to develop women leaders. The programs in the initiative focused onthe idea of men and women as colleagues, enhanced career opportunities for women,supported balance between work and personal life, building goals into business planningand HR processes, and actively communicating these changes to employees. One crucial firststep was the establishment of a series of workshops, “Men and Women as Colleagues,”attended by all partners and managers. Designed to enhance understanding of genderdynamics, the program was supported by the chairman and CEO, and encompassed 10,000individuals who went through the workshops to begin to affect culture change.

Next,Deloitte addressed the area of career opportunities, asking management to analyze the top25 percent of assignments in each practice that provide better-than-average opportunitiesfor advancement, and to be sure that women are appropriately represented. The assignmentsof top-rated female professionals are reviewed to ensure that the best female talent isserving high-visibility clients. This data is reviewed annually. Succession planningidentifies high-potential partners, with specific focus on women and what development theyneed to succeed.

Onecritical aspect is mentoring, a crucial step to career advancement. At Deloitte,individual practices promote their own initiatives. For example, several of Deloitte’spractices take part in Menttium, a formal mentoring program which matches mid-level womenwith top-level executives in the companies.

Theperformance management system links mentoring, counseling, performance feedback, andcareer planning so that individuals realize that hosting and participating in mentoring isstaunchly supported throughout the company. Finally, the firm emphasizes accountability.Each practice and region completes a Women’s Initiative Plan annually. This hasfirm-wide goals and benchmarks for measuring progress against such statistics as femaleheadcount, turnover, gender gap, female promotions, percentage of flexible workarrangements, and women partners in leadership positions.

Clearly,the plan is working. Soon after the first changes, women moved into roles as practice unitleaders and managing directors. Now, every practice unit has a women’s initiativeleader who is responsible for pinpointing concerns related to the long-term success of thewomen’s initiative and are key in identifying women for advancement. The overallinitiative has had stunning results. Today, Deloitte & Touche is considered one of thebest places to work. Currently about 13 percent of the partners and directors are women(growing at 30 to 40 percent per year), and more than 90 women have key leadership roles.Turnover has decreased 25 percent. For the past three years it has ranked high on Fortune’sBest 100 Places to Work list; for the past five years it has been on Working Mother’slist; it received Workforce’s Optimas award; it also has won the Catalyst award.Women in the company are moving into the upper echelons.

However,the company isn’t complacent. One component of its initiative, the Women inLeadership Program, has been enhanced. “We were leading the profession in percentageof new women partners admitted to the firm, but we were concerned that although they wereperforming well, they weren’t achieving leadership spots within the firm in the samepercentages as their male colleagues,” says Rodgers. The firm created “LeadingEdge,” a week-long, residential program with Simmons College Graduate School ofBusiness.

“Webrought 30 of our highest-talent women partners, who had been identified through the firm’ssuccession-planning process, to teach them about some of the gender-based obstacles toleadership,” says Rodgers. “We also help them learn negotiation skills, givethem exposure to senior management, and help them build a sense of community.” Again,the program is working. Sixty-five percent of the women in the first group (the program isongoing) were promoted to leadership roles within the firm the following year. “Ithink it gave the women a lot of tools and self-confidence and the ability to ask forthese opportunities, as well as being better prepared to be leaders in the firm.”

Notonly are the women more self-confident, but leaders in the organization also are morewilling to take a chance on these new people. The women are being given strategicopportunities on significant committees, such as partner admissions committees.

Don’tleave anything to chance

Ifyou have any doubt about the possibilities for change -- even in corporate America --forget them. “The time is right now for change,” says Elizabeth R. “Lee Lee”James, vice chairman of Synovus Financial Corp. “What has happened in dot-comcompanies is having a major impact. There’s not a hierarchy to work up anymore. Itdoesn’t matter if you’re male or female; it doesn’t matter where you arefrom because many of the real barriers have been taken down.” James is a product ofan encouraging environment and the support of colleagues and supervisors.

SynovusFinancial ranks fifth on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies list. “The organizationhas to have a keen focus on individuals and growing those individuals,” she says.“You focus on the people, rather than just staying focused solely on the project, andthe return is unbelievable.” In other words, if you can assume that projects have arealistic timeline and a workable plan, when you see that people are getting lost, youneed to ask yourself why the leadership got lost. The focus should be on how the peopleare doing. Do they have the tools and the resources they need to do the job? Do they havethe education they need? Do they have the management support?

“Ifyou focus on the individual, you’ll be amazed at what those people will do to ensurethe project’s success,” she says. Synovus has a development and evaluationsystem called “Right Step” that is simple and powerful. They ask employees tofill in three circles of information: what they like to do, what they are good at doing,and what needs to be accomplished by the business. Where the three circles intersect isthe “sweet spot.” And when people work in that sweet spot, the company is servedbecause people are more productive, contribute more, and help others contribute.

Synovushas a commitment to developing individuals. In fact, in the leadership model, there arefour tenets: manage the business, live the values, share the vision, and make otherssuccessful. Commitment to others’ success has helped women climb in the firm. “Ithink things will continue to change,” says James. “The pace will quicken alittle bit just because as people lead the way, we understand that you can have maternityleave and whatever you need, and can still provide results and leadership.”

Leaderswill agree that the glass ceiling is cracking. And the ease with which women ascendthrough those fractures has as much to do with their own skills, talents, attitudes, andcharacteristics as with the company itself. There is opportunity everywhere, and there isdemand for great talent. The point is, does your organization encourage the mobility ofthat talent so that women, as well as men, can perform at their best? Only then will theycome to work and stay with you.

Publications:

Workforce,September 2000, Vol. 79, No. 9, pp. 87-94 -- Subscribe now!

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