Still lonely at the top


How are women changing corporate culture? Experts and women executives discuss perception and reality.

We asked women in corporate positions and business experts if women are impacting corporate culture … and got the scoop on perception vs. reality.

She had impressed corporate brass by successfully growing key product lines. Her name was respected in the boardroom and she was due for a promotion.

But none of that seemed to matter when Best Buy’s Julie Gilbert visited company stores with her corporate counterpart, who was male. “The eye contact and conversation went to him-not me,” she recalled. “I would stand there trying to say, ‘Hey, I’m Julie, I’m here.’ He and I were both senior corporate but culturally, they thought he was the power player.”

Experts can point to evidence supporting Gilbert’s discovery: Despite big gains, women don’t always fit into corporate America. Even as women have been promoted in greater numbers to management and graduated from business and law schools at higher rates than men, the dominant corporate culture often excludes them-subtly and overtly. “Are organizations changing? Yes. Are men still perceived as better leaders even though women are effective leaders? Yes,” said Anne Cummings, PhD, an associate professor of management at the University of Minnesota Duluth who has studied organizational behavior and leadership style.

Want to learn more?
Advancing Women in Business: The Catalyst Guide by Catalyst

Double Outsiders: How Women of Color Can Succeed in Corporate America by Jessica Faye Carter

Climbing the Corporate Ladder in High Heels by Kathleen Archambeau Nonprofit organization working globally to build inclusive environments for women; also a premier resource for information and data about women in the workplace A company focused on promoting women in the workplace
0607/1204/helfat.html Dartmouth College study of women in corporate leadership

The statistics speak for themselves: About 5 percent of CEOs in medium to large companies are women. In 2005, just 17 percent of corporate officers (a company’s top positions) in Fortune 500 companies were women and more than half of the Fortune 500 companies had fewer than three female corporate officers, according to a recent study by Catalyst, a research organization that tracks workplace diversity. Of the corporate officers in 2005, only 2 percent were women of color. And at the current rate, Fortune 500 companies could take 40 years for women to achieve parity with men in corporate officer ranks, the study said. “The continuing gender gap in senior leadership, especially among women of color, demonstrates a persistent uneven playing field,” said Ilene H. Lang, Catalyst president.

According to a 2004 study by the University of Maine’s Business School, the “good ol’ boy network” helps keep the playing field uneven. The same study pointed to women’s differing leadership, socialization and communication styles as reasons they don’t often make it to the top.

Making an impact

Despite the lack of women in the most coveted corporate positions, the sheer numbers of women in the workplace and their presence in overall management has changed corporate America in key areas. Flex-time policies, originally proposed to help mothers balance family and career, are now popular with both genders. The demand for cafeteria plans within health-care plans also is attributed to women’s influence in the workplace. As more women raised the issue of creating time for family and work-life balance, it became a norm for company policies.

“More and more companies are offering cafeteria benefits that are family-friendly and work-hour flexibility is very big for many women,” said Elsa Batica, cross-cultural health development and training manager at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. Besides helping women raise families and care for elderly parents, such flexibility also “has helped men,” Batica added. “We see more fathers who are better parents than their fathers.”

Since 1973 when the first U.S. company introduced flex time, the option has become very popular: In 2004, 28 percent of all full-time workers in the U.S. had flexible work schedules and 43 percent of U.S. workers had access to flex time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a report by the Families and Work Institute.

A stigma?

Despite the excitement over flex time and related family friendly policies, there is some evidence of a stigma attached to women who take advantage of flex time and time off for caregiving for children or other relatives, research shows.

Studies show women can lose professional opportunities and be considered less effective or productive by the corporate culture when they take advantage of flex time and family leave. “We have to change the norms and expectations around those policies to make it OK for everyone to take part in them,” said Professor Teresa Glomb, University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management Professor of Human Resources and Industrial Relations.

Perception vs. reality

Cummings has found that although employees rank traditionally feminine qualities of being relationship-oriented, democratic and good at communication as being important in leaders, they consistently perceive female leaders to be less effective than their male counterparts. “Men are still perceived as better leaders,” she said. “It has to do with what is deemed desirable in a man and in a woman.”

Batica has personally experienced this. She remembers years ago when her employees expected her to forgive instead of follow through on terminating someone for consistently not doing his or her job. “They would never have expected a man to do that. But I was female so was supposed to forgive,” she said. Instead, Batica documented her decision meticulously in case she was challenged. She remembers the emotional cost of doing her job in the context of expected gender roles. “I think women do get exhausted because of this,” she said.

Those expectations and perceptions about gender can rule everything from conversation at the water cooler to the way a meeting is run. At Best Buy, it once meant corporate talk laced with sports analogies, advertising and other campaigns with little to no female input and overt signs of valuing men more than women, said those who set out to change that company’s culture-and succeeded.

Change from within

Gilbert’s gender-related experiences were underscored by the experiences of other women in the company. “One employee said, ‘Julie, we don’t fit in,’ and then she gave me example after example. And I understood.” On the same store visits where male managers all but ignored Gilbert because her male counterpart was there, she got hugs from female employees. “‘We hug you because we’re so excited that there is a woman like you with corporate-we are so proud that you’re there,’ they told me,” Gilbert recalled.

That marked the beginning of WOLF (Women’s Leadership Forum).

Gilbert won the support of senior leadership for the program, which aims to increase support and networking for female employees (including support among each other and from male employees) and reduce turnover as well as increase hiring of female employees. The results have been positive, Gilbert said, adding that 15,000 employees participate in WOLF Packs-groups of about two-dozen people who innovate change within departments. The packs include two or so men but not many more, in part to help men understand what it’s like to be in the minority in a group.

The WOLF effort was strategically connected to a big push by the company to better serve female customers. This helped Gilbert win support for it. Today, besides reduced turnover among female employees and more female job applicants, Gilbert said there is a distinct change in culture.

It’s now unusual for leadership to insist that every meeting include a balance of women and men, said Gilbert. When the WOLF Packs learned of an ad campaign that had had no female input and they weighed in, they prompted a change in the ads that made them more appealing to women. Gilbert says the company uses less sports analogy and other “guy talk” that excludes women (“before this, everything was a ‘let’s have a huddle,'” she said). And the program has led to a new job-share program that helps employees balance their work and family lives.

“Now we have men saying ‘Hey I want to participate in the job share program,'” Gilbert said.

Mentors and manipulators

Women in corporate America often have female mentors and supporters, as well as women who have sabotaged or otherwise hurt them professionally. Gilbert found this challenging. “I had women who were very resistant,” she said. “So I said ‘I challenge you, as a leader, to support this employee in a meeting instead of watching her struggle or huddling with your girlfriends at work and tearing her down.'”

Batica has strong female supporters in her current job, in the past she’s dealt with “the politics of scarcity” by relying on women outside of her immediate work environment for support. “Women in the workplace and even more so in management are new and few. So women are protective of their territory,” she said, adding that it is worse for women of color.

Prescription for change

A Dartmouth College study cited a small female talent pool from which to draw for top company positions.

“Getting more qualified women into the executive hierarchy is critical,” the study said. “Companies achieved greater representation of women in the top executive ranks through aggressive promotion and hiring, policies that companies lacking women executives could emulate.”

The study concluded, “Unless firms find ways to move women into line positions and retain them, the route to the top will remain much more difficult for women.”

And while national statistics might be alarming, they don’t dictate individual company behavior. Retaining women as well as ensuring they are happy, productive-and promoted-employees depends on individual companies, Cummings said. Like Best Buy’s welcoming of WOLF, an individual company can choose to have a woman-supportive culture.

“A lot of this depends on the organization and its leadership,” she said. “Corporate cultures are sets of values.”

Women of color: ‘double minorities’

While women of color have had increases in promotions and salaries in the last five years, a recent study by Arizona State University found African-American and Hispanic women are leaving corporate jobs at higher rates than black men and white men and women combined. The study’s author, Dr. Peter Hom, concluded, “[Corporations] should systematically monitor the retention of women of color who may suffer disadvantages exacerbated by being double minorities … [and] pinpoint their unique disadvantages, such as inaccessibility to high visibility assignments and powerful mentors during initial employment when they are most susceptible to leaving.”

Catalyst reports that minority women in lower to middle management have a big disadvantage in not having access to networks of influential colleagues-connections that are key to moving into top management.

Women we spoke with said that women of color rarely make it into the top positions. “I have seen women of color go to a certain level and they are taken out and have to start over,” said Elsa Batica, who is Filipina; she has seen women of color made irrelevant and unwelcome at the upper levels of management-much more so, she said, than white women.

Jane Jackson, a middle manager with a Fortune 500 company in the Twin Cities, said it’s very lonely to be a woman of color. “I don’t fit in at all. I have felt this way my entire career,” said Jackson, who asked that her real name and company not be identified for fear of retaliation. “Men don’t see me … and women are often threatened by me.”

“Corporate America by definition is about getting ahead and if you build up someone else too much there is the fear that they will be promoted and not you,” Jackson said.

She believes her experience is very different from that of a white woman’s. Adding to her “differentness” here in the Twin Cities is her accent and her petite stature. Many people have expectations of a petite, foreign-born, woman of color, she said. When she turns those expectations upside down by cogently grasping issues, having strong ideas and asserting herself, “some people can’t handle it. They can’t get past the fact that their perception was wrong.”

So why has she succeeded? Some people, she said, have had the ability to look beyond stereotypes. Her personal attributes have helped them do so. “I have found that being who I am-being reliable and treating people well-has earned me respect and helped me succeed.”