Women Are Still Undervalued Bridge the Parity Gap

May 1, 1998
Diane Creel isn't afraid to take risks. This CEO of Earth Tech, an international engineering firm, wasn't afraid in 1994 when she made her first acquisition while serving as president of the company ... nor her second in 1995 ... nor her third in 1996. In all, Creel boldly moved the Long Beach, California, company forward to acquire a total of five companies in 30 months, each time ratcheting up revenue and aggressively reversing the downward spiral she inherited when she took the reins as president in 1988. Then in 1996, to continue the company's growth, she championed Earth Tech's acquisition by Tyco International.

Creel, the first female CEO of a publicly owned engineering firm, didn't shy away from head-on skirmishes as she came up through the ranks to her current status of leading a company whose revenue has grown from $60 million to $315 million during her tenure. Creel's a remarkable success and role model, not only because of her competitive aggressiveness and willingness to take risks, but also because of her commitment to teamwork and collaboration.

But don't celebrate just yet. Don't go away thinking that Creel reflects equality for women in Corporate America-she doesn't.

After three decades of attention and concern directed toward women's parity in the workplace, there's still only a handful of stories like Creel's to tell. While society is moving in the right direction, the movement is slow. Too slow. Women have made strides, especially in the professional and educational arenas, and in entrepreneurial and small business ventures, but they lag woefully behind in the corporate world. To make matters worse, there's little dispute about the value women bring to the workplace.

Society may be inching along in the right direction, but as we approach the millennium, what do we have to show for the decades of work in this area? For example, if you look at the Working Mother list of 100 Best Companies, only seven have achieved parity (meaning the percentage of women in the company is reflected among the upper echelons). Equally alarming, according to Catalyst, the New York City-based nonprofit research and advisory organization dedicated to helping women achieve equality in the workplace, women comprise almost 50 percent of today's workforce, and statisticians project this number will increase to 62 percent within a decade. And, women comprise 34 percent of MBA program candidates. Nevertheless, Catalyst's "1997 Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners" showed that only 10.6 percent of the corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies are women. Financial figures paint an even bleaker portrait. Of the top earners in these companies, women comprise a miniscule 2.5 percent. In other words, for every woman CEO, president, executive vice president, and senior managing director, there are hundreds of thousands of women who still aren't recognized and accorded equal value in the workplace.

What has hindered gender parity? Despite the fact that women bring desired talent and needed qualities to the workplace, they're still surprisingly undervalued. Logic would dictate that we should be a lot further along than we are. After all, it has been 35 years since Betty Friedan burst onto the scene in 1963 with the publication of her ground-breaking book "The Feminine Mystique," which attacked the notion that women could only find true fulfillment raising children and tending to a home. Her vision set the wheels of social and workplace change in motion for women.

Sure, things like this take time. But it's time to be more proactive. There's too much at stake. Too many times superb female performers leave their companies because of lack of opportunity. Droves of talented women are opting out of Corporate America to join small firms or start their own businesses. It's time for HR professionals to take a closer look at their role in this situation. And even more important, it's time for HR professionals to realize that HR can and should change the situation.

What do women bring to the workplace?
Women have brought many positive attributes to Corporate America. Before the women's movement, business people believed there was one best way to lead-the traditional "male way," which was autocratic and power-driven. Says Judy B. Rosener, professor of management at the Graduate School of Management, University of California, Irvine, and author of "America's Competitive Secret: Women Managers," (Oxford University Press 1995), and "Ways Women Lead," (Harvard Business Review, November-December 1990): "If you asked people what attribute they associated with leadership, they gave the terms, competitive, individualistic, aggressive." These are the same characteristics that come to mind when you think of men. Companies no longer thrive with this type of bureaucratic, top-down management style. Instead, the best managers now use a more collaborative, inclusive style-a style that women often instinctively bring to the workplace. Organizational psychologists, researchers and management gurus attribute traits to women such as: inclusion, teamwork, cooperation, participatory management, comfort with ambiguity, sharing power and information, and ability to resolve conflict.

As the corporate machine has evolved, so has the art of management. Those with the "right stuff" should be more valuable than ever.

More of the right stuff.
Try this little-known fact on for size: Women are generally better at seeing the big picture-a pretty valuable characteristic for business leaders. It all has to do with how women and men perceive their environment.

Carol R. Frenier, author of "Business and the Feminine Principle: The Untapped Resource" (Butterworth-Heinemann 1997) explains that men and women have somewhat different perceptual patterns, ways of seeing the world. Although individuals incorporate both ways, Frenier cites Jungian psychological theory and explains that the feminine side tends to operate with diffuse awareness while the masculine side has focused consciousness. In Frenier's explanation, focused consciousness sees a colorful fall landscape and concentrates on the individual distinctions between the reds and greens in the trees and the contrast with the blue sky, whereas the feminine part of the mind-the diffuse awareness-sees the whole collage.

In workplace behavior, focused consciousness translates into the ability to concentrate on making choices, on establishing action plans and setting specific goals. Diffuse awareness sees the linkages between things, relationships between people and the scope of the whole picture, including the sensitivity to individuals' feelings. Clearly, both ways of seeing things are crucial, but workplace behavior in the past has been more accustomed to the masculine way.

Tied into this characteristic is the fact that women tend to want to have the whole picture before taking action. So, in a crisis, for example, the typical masculine/feminine patterns might play out as follows. Men tend to roll up their sleeves, stay up all night and complete the job immediately. Women would be careful to gather all the information they needed to feel that the project was complete before releasing it.

And, there's data to support the contention that women's styles translate into exceptional leadership. A 1996 ground-breaking study to compare gender differences in the workplace by the Foundation for Future Leadership based in Washington, D.C., surveyed 915 managers and found that corporate women outperform men in 28 of 31 categories. And these aren't the traditionally gender-bound issues of cooperation, intuition and support. Indeed, women outperformed men in maintaining high productivity, meeting schedules and deadlines, recognizing trends, articulating ideas, monitoring and controlling performance, and generating new ideas. The study, by Janet Irwin and Michael Perrault, called "Gender Differences at Work: Are Men and Women Really That Different?" was a 360-degree feedback tool that evaluated 30 behaviors ranging from problem-solving skills to delegating authority. Interestingly, men and women scored highest on the same areas (organizational skills) and lowest on the same areas (interpersonal areas).

"Most surprising to us was how well women fared outside the interpersonal factors. We're seeing a shift away from the traditional military, autocratic approach of management to a more team-based, collaborative, inclusive style. Women bring some very different styles to their management than men," says Irwin. "For example, in delegating we found that women have a more hands-on approach and give more information upfront about what's expected and what the time lines are. They touch base periodically to make sure the employee is on track. Men tend to hand out the assignment and then assume it's being done unless the person comes to them."

It's apparent that women bring needed qualities, skills and abilities to the workplace of the '90s and beyond. So, why don't more companies put their money where their talent is?

What's the disconnect?
Why aren't these qualities rewarded with pay and status? "What we're talking about is a profound social change," says Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst. "Women don't reach the top in anything like the numbers that one would expect in a random throw of the dice. There remain considerable obstacles to overcome." The first one is the belief that "we've been there, done that." This presumes that women already have made it in almost equal numbers and is one reason Catalyst produced its census report. The numbers prove this is an inaccurate perception.

Another misperception is that "time will take care of it." A flurry of reports show this clearly isn't the case either. People think parity for women will happen in time. But there are real barriers to change. One barrier is that women don't have equal access to profit-and-loss positions. Over the years, they haven't had positions with bottom-line responsibility in the same numbers as men. "These barriers are largely inadvertent," says Wellington, "but they do perpetuate difficulties."

Other barriers are stereotypes and biases such as: Women won't relocate; Women are risk-averse; women get pregnant and lack commitment to jobs; and women won't put in the time for client responsiveness. Women also identify that they're excluded from informal networks of communication and lack mentors.

Rosener believes you can't break the glass ceiling from below. "You'll get blood in your face and glass in your eyes," she says. Instead, you have to remove it from above. "The men who are up there must be convinced that it's in their own self-interest to remove that ceiling. But the women's glass ceiling is a floor for the men, and they may have a fear of falling." When Rosener realized that men are afraid of their security being harmed if women break the glass ceiling, she began to realize that the only way to make significant change was to refocus the discussion as one of competitive advantage. Indeed, there's a large talent pool of highly educated, experienced individuals whose attributes are underutilized primarily because they're women.

These stereotypes and prejudices must be revealed and confronted. HR managers can do much to start the repairs.

Make parity a business issue
Marcia Worthing is one of those HR professionals who's the vanguard of change in a company that esteems equality of women and pioneers efforts to accomplish parity. As the senior vice president of HR and corporate affairs for New York City-based Avon Products Inc., Worthing not only is in the firm's highest echelons, she also reports directly to the CEO, which is a clear indication of Avon's commitment to women.

Universally regarded as one of the most conducive companies for women's upward mobility, Avon has women in 29 percent of its corporate officer roles, has two top wage earners who are part of that meager 2.5 percent figure for all of the Fortune 500, has four women on the board of directors (which ranks it among the highest) and has been named six times to Working Mother magazine's list of 100 best firms to work for in America.

Avon takes these efforts seriously. You can see it in the way the company integrates all of its efforts to bring about equity. And why not? Fundamentally, it's a top business priority. "HR has to start with the business rationale," says Worthing. "I always tell HR people as they start to work on this to figure out why you need to do this as a company and tie it back to your business."

At Avon, the business case is obvious: The consumer and employee base (which is 73 percent women) demands it. Because diversity, including gender-parity issues, is one of the key objectives of the company, Avon integrates diversity into every human resources process. It's part of the training, part of the assessment of executives and part of the benefits plans, and has occasionally been tied to compensation. Because of this, better parity for women has been ingrained in Avon's corporate culture.

"For HR functions that are just getting started on this, it's very important to get a critical mass of women in the company. You really need to be able to have a good pool from which to develop women and promote women, but you also need that critical mass so that men and women get used to working together and create role models for lower level women," says Worthing.

But, HR simply can't effect change alone. "Human resources must work very, very closely with line management," she says. "Line managers do the hiring, the promoting, and ultimately, they're the ones who have to really buy into this and make it work."

Develop a culture of equality.
Worthing isn't surprised that the road to gender parity takes so long. It involves changing the corporate culture, she says, which is a very slow process.

While Avon has exemplary policies and programs (such as career development and dependent-care contracts that include emergency child-care and elder-care referrals), instilling parity involves far more than simply creating initiatives. Certainly a central component of women's inability to enter upper management levels is the lack of an environment that acknowledges and accommodates their other roles in life, such as caregivers. Policies and programs provide very little support if the corporate culture deters women from using them because they perceive it will limit their careers. They interpret the corporate culture as unfriendly to their needs and adverse to their career growth.

Ironically, HR is often part of the problem. "HR has tended in the past to be a very compliance-driven discipline (in terms of how many hours are worked, whether someone is working at home or doing flexible hours)," says Terri Wolfe, director of HR for Ventura, California-based Patagonia Inc. The company has been on Working Mother magazine's list for nine years and is an organization that has achieved parity. Women comprise 53 percent of the workforce and make up 55 percent of the highest paid in the company. The company has onsite child care, resource programs, and most important, tremendously flexible work arrangements, including where, when and how.

"Unfortunately, HR has been at the root of a lot of fear," she says. For example, performance evaluations and pay-and-reward systems are based on compliance, competition and fear, as opposed to collaboration and risk taking. "Instead, HR needs to foster an organization in which collaboration, communication and trust are part of the environment. Women tend to work better and strive to achieve in a team, collaborative environment," adds Wolfe.

But, how does HR create a culture that nurtures interdependency, collaboration and cooperation? At Patagonia, performance evaluations are separate from salary considerations. They're developmental tools only that give HR, line managers and the individual historic information about performance to be used as a planning tool for career growth.

Wolfe suggests HR managers begin to gather information that supports the business application of elements contributing to a collaborative environment. "Organizations that have improved collaboration and improved communication are going to be better prepared to take on issues of rapidly changing technology, environmental concerns and rapid global growth. Women historically perform better in environments of trust rather than fear and fierce competition," says Wolfe.

How can HR help turn around an environment that's negative to women's upward mobility? Just look at Toronto-based Bank of Montreal for some answers. In 1989, after a new leadership team took over the bank, managers identified that female talent was being underutilized. The workforce was 75 percent women, but they represented only 6 percent of the executive officer ranks. It was a business imperative to turn the situation around. A 1991 survey of the 32,000 employees uncovered five myths that stood in the way of women having full representation in senior positions.

The HR staff and other senior managers went to work to change the situation. Using the survey as a guide, they created a task force and developed a report, which every employee received, to address the problem. Starting at the executive level, they held training sessions on men and women as colleagues to build awareness about the traditional attitudes and barriers to promotion that these attitudes and behaviors were causing.

The staff also changed policies and programs to support flexible work arrangements. Not only did they create an array of options (part time, flexible workplace, flex hours, compressed workweek), the key feature was that it was employee-initiated. The individual creates a proposal and begins a dialog with the supervisor. "The manager clearly understands that the bank's policy is to support these kinds of arrangements to help people balance their commitments," says Diane Ashton, vice president of workplace equality at the bank's Toronto offices.

"The overall impact of this work was to make it clear to everyone that just because some individuals have more responsibilities outside the organization isn't a valid reason for women not getting ahead, and that being part time doesn't mean they're not committed to the organization. We were institutionalizing permission. We were changing attitudes and perceptions in the culture," says Ashton.

In addition, the bank introduced a career information network, which is an online system by which all vacancies in the organization are posted. This was to scratch away at the perceived "old boy" network. New performance planning and review programs have been instituted to provide formal opportunities for discussion about career goals and development. Managers have become coaches.

Finally, Ashton produces quarterly reports for the company's internal president's council that track statistics in this area. She looks at the representation of women in key developmental assignments and opportunities to see if women are gaining access to developmental programs. And, she looks at the percentage of women in each major line of business in the bank. "Understand that the advancement of women is a key business strategy for the bank. It may also be a priority for the HR group, but bottom line, it's a business initiative. Senior people are accountable for making progress. We just can't afford to overlook the female talent pool in our business," says Ashton.

Today, the bank is among the best companies in North America. Its woman executive officer ranks have grown from 6 percent to 24 percent in six years; women's representation as senior vice presidents rose from 3 percent to 27 percent; and women have moved into the executive pipeline to keep the momentum going. The Bank of Montreal won the 1997 Workforce Magazine Optimas Award for General Excellence and won the Catalyst Award in 1994.

"Clearly there's a tremendous role HR can play," says Catalyst's Wellington. Even if the environment isn't as conducive to change as these best-practice companies, HR professionals have great influence. They can identify and track high-potential women. They can use the succession-planning process to be sure that women have a fair shot at the jobs that lead to advancement. They can see that women rotate across functions so they get line experience. They can give women visible assignments and establish mentoring programs.

Says Wellington, "There aren't any quick fixes. It takes a sustained commitment and recognition that it's good business. Look at it as an investment." Ultimately, HR as a department and as a profession can examine the barriers to flexibility and upward movement for women within the corporate culture. It's a long road. But the business value of the journey is unparalleled.

Workforce, May 1998, Vol. 77, No. 5, pp. 78-86.