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5 Myths That (Still) Hold Women Back.

Sex discrimination hasn't gone away, but it has changed in ways you may not realize. Here are warning signs plus practical measures that make a difference.

DIVERSITY EXPERTS HEAR THE QUESTIONS ALL THE TIME: WHY ARE WOMEN still part of the diversity picture? Can't we consider sex discrimination a closed case and move on?

Those same diversity professionals reply, somewhat wearily, that such questions reflect a common misperception--one of several about why equal numbers in the workplace don't necessarily add up to equal pay, status, or opportunity. The following five myths point out the most common areas of misunderstanding, as well as the most important areas in which you as an association executive must be prepared to fight the persistent problems.

Myth 1: We solved the problem of sex discrimination in the '60s and '70s, so that's all behind us now.

What the experts say: Not so, according to the claim counters at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The year 2000 produced 25,194 sex-based discrimination charges and saw a record $109 million paid out in monetary benefits.

Not so, say the number crunchers at Catalyst, New York City, a research firm that tracks women's progress in business and the professions. In its "Labor Day 2000 Fact Sheet," Catalyst noted that even though women held 49 percent of managerial and professional specialty positions in 1999, women claimed only 5 percent of the highest corporate titles and were a mere 3 percent of the highest corporate earners. The problems exist for women of all races but are especially acute among women of color. For every dollar white men earned in 1998, white women earned 78 cents, African-American women earned 67 cents, and Hispanic women earned 56 cents.

The problem of sex discrimination is not over in the association world either, says Ismael Rivera, Jr., immediate past chair of the ASAE Diversity Committee and chief elected officer of the American Association for Affirmative Action, Alexandria, Virginia. "While you tend to see a higher percentage of women in executive positions than you used to, it's probably not the rate it could be if organizations presented and offered women the same opportunities that are presented and offered to men," he says.

The ASAE membership statistics aren't a perfect indicator, as not all association executives belong to ASAE. Nevertheless, 49 percent of the 25,000 members are female, but only 38 percent of association CEOs belonging to ASAE are female.

Practical advice: Despite liberating events of a generation ago--the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the birth control pill, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Roe v. Wade--it's important to recognize that sex discrimination is alive and all too well, says Douglas M. Kleine, CAE, executive director of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives, Washington, D.C. He cites proof all around: in the overwhelming number of men in power in everywhere from Congress to the corner office, in the persistent gap in men's and women's salaries, and in the condescension or disregard that too many working women continue to face.

In other words, "it's still an issue because it still exists," says Ursula Silberschmidt, CEO, Association Management Services, Zurich, Switzerland, and treasurer of the European Society of Association Executives.

To ensure equal treatment of female and male staff members, start by acknowledging the likelihood that the problem continues. Then read on to learn more about why inequality persists, how it has changed, and what specifically your association can do to promote gender equality.

Myth 2: I'm a good person working for a right-minded association. We would never discriminate against women.

What the experts say: Such statements are "most unfortunate," says Sharon Parker, former president of the American Institute for Managing Diversity and now an organizational diversity consultant in Olympia, Washington. Convincing yourself that only bad people discriminate, and then only because they're malicious or ignorant, blinds you to what Parker sees as the root of today's problem: Well-meaning organizations unintentionally perpetuate a culture that results in inequality. "We have not addressed the systemic issues of power and control," she says.

What are these systemic issues? Often they come down to unexamined practices such as:

* The tendency to hire and promote people who are like the people already in power. If you're an organizational leader, it's natural to gravitate toward professionals you know, Parker says--ones who share everything from your business circles to your values. If these people don't happen to include women--or Hispanics, or African-Americans, or people with disabilities or different sexual orientations--it is indeed harder to find a diverse pool of qualified candidates. The result is that the people in the pipeline to the top jobs will continue to be like the people who already occupy the top jobs.

* The tendency to pay women less simply because they may be available for less. "You don't see discrimination as much in hiring these days, but you do in salary," says Diane Gold, president of EEO Management Solutions, Falls Church, Virginia. She's a lawyer whose business helps organizations prevent Equal Employment Opportunity lawsuits.

Gender-based pay differences are documented in ASAE's recently released 12th Association Executive Compensation and Benefits Study. It reveals that a trend documented before by this study continues: women being paid less than men in comparable association staff positions.

Often women have two disadvantages: They come from lower paying jobs to begin with, and in general they lack the salary-negotiation experience, says Rivera, who in addition to his volunteer diversity activities is vice president of client services at Berkshire Associates, an affirmative action and human resources consulting firm in Columbia, Maryland. Thus, Rivera says, when you hire a woman, you may be able to hire her for less than what comparable men command. What feels like a good financial deal for your association could in fact be discrimination. She's at a pay disadvantage that will take her years to overcome, if indeed she ever catches up with her male counterparts.

* The tendency to do something the way we've always done it--even if that's not the most effective or accommodating way. The issue of how work gets done is on "the cutting edge of diversity," says Jennifer Allyn, director of advisory services at Catalyst. She notes that most organizations have many built-in inefficiencies, from unproductive meetings to fuzzy priorities. Often this leads to a culture in which the most important thing is to put in your hours--often long hours--regardless of whether you're actually productive. (Sound familiar?)

An alternative is to rework the work, allowing people to do their jobs at the times and places that allow them to accomplish the most, not merely ensure the most face time. Working conditions that are more goal-oriented but also more flexible are often especially beneficial to women, Allyn says, because traditionally they're the ones who have to rush out and pick up the kids at 5 p.m.

Practical advice: Conduct a study of where your candidates tend to come from and why they get hired. Do a formal examination of who gets paid what for which work. (See the "Resources" sidebar to learn about a free self-audit available on the Internet.) Research broad trends as well as individual cases. Do your practices favor certain groups-and exclude others? If so, make changes.

Then consider the pros and cons of working more flexibly. Allyn has observed two trends in the corporate world: to manage by objectives and results instead of by how many hours the staff puts in, and to offer employees who need it some flexibility at different points in their career. Law firms, for example, may give some staff the chance to make partner after 14 years of 40-hour weeks instead of 7 years of 80-hour weeks. Obviously association staff members don't strive to make partner--but many do want to advance while meeting their personal commitments. So talk to staff about what would make them more productive, effective, and loyal. Then dare to think differently about how to make this possible.

Myth 3: It's the job of our diversity committee and human resources staff to take care of discrimination problems for us.

What the experts say: A common (if unstated) misconception is that diversity efforts can run on a separate track from the organization's real work almost like the social committee. "People think, 'We'll do diversity stuff over there, not overall--it's for some other department, not us,'" says Emily Lange, director of member services at Women in Cable and Telecommunications, Chicago. "But it doesn't work in isolation, not if you truly want to build up the diversity of your staff, membership, board, or customer base."

Gold agrees. "A lot of it is trickle-down. If the top people really have [Equal Employment Opportunity] goals and rules in mind, everyone else will, too. But if they don't, the whole organization will be affected."

True progress--with genuine systemic changes made--"has to come from the top," says Parker.

Practical advice: Good grief, you think: I have to do diversity personally, on top of the other 101 things I have to take care of?

Yes, if it's to be a major priority and not just a feel-good thing. As a leader, you have to put the force of your influence behind the association's commitment.

Kleine is an executive who doesn't just talk about his dedication to equal opportunity--he acts on it. As executive vice president of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, Ankeny, Iowa, in the mid-1990s, he hired the first female department head in the society's 45-year history; 6 years later, five of the six top staff were women. Working with SWCS's chief elected officer, he also added women and minorities to the editorial board as well as the nominating committee and awards and conference program committees.

While at the Entomological Society of America, Lanham, Maryland, he oversaw several efforts to benefit all staff, but especially women. He flattened the organizational structure to create more management opportunities. Then he added short-term disability insurance, dependent care accounts, and the opportunity to use cafeteria benefits allowances to buy more time off.

"I don't think in terms of, quote, diversity programs," says Kleine. Instead, he raises key questions as needed. Who gives out awards and determines which papers should be published? Who puts forth candidates for the board and decides which speakers will appear at the annual meeting? When women and minorities become part of the decision making, "you are more likely to see deserving women and minorities chosen for these outputs," he says.

In addition to working with your chief elected officer, make sure your human resources staff is as effective as possible. "You need an HR department that knows diversity and knows where to go to get a diverse pool," says Joan Kuyper, CAE, deputy director for organizational advancement with the Society of Women Engineers, Chicago. "Too often HR says, 'We put our ads in The New York Times,' and then they wonder why they wind up with cookie-cutter results. You have to be proactive in your approach--not recruiting in the same old ways but going to ethnic newspapers, going to agencies that recruit people that are very diverse."

The human resources staff must also feel comfortable working with you on your own blind spots, including the laws involving discrimination, says Gold. It's hard to present your organization as friendly to both sexes if you don't know what's wrong with, for example, asking women candidates about their plans to start a family.

Whatever you do, don't wait for a sex discrimination lawsuit before you find out whether your gender diversity efforts do any good. Gold points out the wisdom of the old saying that the best defense is a good offense. When all else fails and a lawsuit does arise, she says, "if you can show that you have a good procedure, that there was training in how to resolve issues but the person didn't utilize the procedures even though you were ready and willing and able to do so, the case can be thrown out."

Myth 4: Women comprise fifty percent of our staff, so we obviously don't discriminate.

What the experts say: "The issue is not so much that women are not there. It's that the ones who have made it have had to take a longer road than their counterparts who happen to be males," says Rivera.

"The upward direction has improved, but the rate is too slow," says Allyn. Several troublesome conditions and attitudes play a part in this. The Catalyst book Advancing Women in Business (1998, Jossey-Bass) cites the following among the most powerful barriers to female career advancement:

* negative assumptions in the executive ranks about women, their abilities, and their commitment to careers;

* perceptions that women don't fit with the corporate culture;

* lack of career planning and lack of job experiences to fit the future needs of the organization;

* lack of core opportunities for female employees with management potential;

* the assumption that women will not relocate for career advancement;

* failure to make managers account able for advancing women;

* reluctance of management to give women line, or revenue-generating, experience;

* absence of, or too limited, succession planning;

* negative mentoring--from higher ups who intentionally or unintentionally steer women away from top jobs--and negative self--selection when women deliberately choose jobs that will keep them off the executive track; and

* lack of mentoring and exclusion from informal career networks, where men have typically learned the unwritten rules of success.

No matter what skills women develop, sometimes they still don't seem good enough, says Ursula Silberschmidt. "Deduct 10-20 percent of the abilities men claim to have when they apply for a position, and add 10-20 percent to the abilities women say they have. This gives a more realistic picture of where men and women stand, though there are always exceptions." With a wry laugh she tells the joke about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers--that he got most of the applause even though she did the same work while dancing backward and in high heels.

Practical advice: Consider hiring an objective outsider to do a formal study of just how your association works. Consultants can examine your Equal Employment Opportunity policies and procedures, including whether employees have an effective complaint procedure they can use before resorting to a lawsuit. Or you can commission a culture audit to study whether and how your organization is set up to work against full inclusion. By scrutinizing your publications and conducting interviews and surveys, such an audit "looks at more than your structure--it looks at the essence of your organization," says Parker.

That essence is important because so often disparities are subtle, Kleine says. "But discrimination still exists if benefits are slanted toward what men want, policies are slanted toward men's values, salaries and managerial positions are weighted toward men, position descriptions carry extraneous male attributes, and the association culture still carries sex-discrimination overtones--such as fashion shows at the annual conference."

If a close look at your association reveals that success is mostly a matter of who you know, formalize the processes that help talent rise to the top, and perhaps do succession planning---even at the lower levels--to show where advancement opportunities exist. The process by which people get promoted tends to be full of bias, Allyn says, depending on what top executives assume about who does what well (and who doesn't).

Then make sure you don't take it for granted that women don't want certain opportunities, such as travel assignments or transfers. "Employers may think they're doing women a favor, but the proper thing is to ask, not assume," says Gold.

Myth 5: I've got an association to run. That's more important than worrying about gender diversity.

What the experts say: There are plenty of bottom-line reasons why diversity is worth worrying about, according to Business for Social Responsibility, San Francisco, an organization that helps businesses combine commercial success with responsible policies and practices. BSR's Web site ( lists several tangible benefits:

* decreased turnover, which results in lowered hiring and training costs;

* improved productivity, when jobs are filled by the most qualified people rather than the people whom favoritism helped climb the ladder;

* better ability to stay in sync with changing demographics, especially as women and minorities become more prominent in the workplace and the marketplace;

* less vulnerability to legal challenges; and

* an enhanced reputation as a great place to work or to become a member.

Practical advice: To reap the business benefits of gender diversity, take a businesslike approach to planning, budgeting, and staffing for results. Advancing Women in Business breaks the necessary steps into three parts.

Phase 1: Establish a strong foundation for your efforts, including tying the initiative to a business rationale and ensuring that there's leadership sup port from both you and your board.

Phase 2: Build a fact base to work from, including internal and external benchmarks for women's progress and opportunities for change.

Phase 3: Develop, pilot, and implement your action plans. Two of the most effective actions involve work life supports (usually benefits that make it easier to balance job and family) and women's leadership development.

Here are three examples of gender diversity programs from associations, corporations, and women-based associations whose programs for members could be adapted to your staff or volunteers.

Scholarships. To finance career development activities, the Presidential Scholars program of the American Red Cross, Falls Church, Virginia, gives leadership development scholarships of up to $10,000 each to women and minority employees and volunteers in middle management who have the potential to advance. Activities include an intensive career planning institute and a variety of career coaching opportunities. "In addition to helping women and minorities advance," says Debbera Hayward, senior director of the corporate diversity department, "the eight-year-old program provides the Red Cross with a diverse talent pool-both employee and volunteer for filling management and leadership vacancies."

Leadership development programs. Women in Cable and Telecommunications sponsors the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute, designed to help WICT members in senior and upper-middle management refine their leadership styles. The institute is a year-long program that includes direct feedback, personal development, and industry involvement. Twenty-five fellows are chosen every year via a competitive process. (For details, go to

Accountability initiatives. To prompt managers to make diversity a part of their business objectives, American Express developed "Building a Winning Culture: Accountability Counts." This broad initiative includes a leadership competency model, which makes diversity goals part of results-based performance evaluations; an annual employee survey that reflects on leaders' diversity efforts; a two-year management training curriculum that has a diversity component; and a mandate to ensure diverse candidates for every position. The program won a 2001 Catalyst Award. (For details, go to, click on "press room," and check out the related press release.)

Whatever approach you take, resist the urge to go for a quick fix, says Rivera. "It's better to go beyond typical sensitivity training or celebrating Women's History Month. Instead, make a plan so you can tell if your targets are being met or if you're just throwing darts in the dark. You should know your objectives, know the goals you want to accomplish, and make your results measurable."

Any diversity effort works best "when it's not an add-on," says Lange. "It should be how you do business, how you communicate, and how you interact with members, volunteers, and staff. Part of your competency as a CEO is having a diversity perspective in everything you do."

Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland.

3 Myth-Busting Strategies FOR YOUR BOARD

Your association's commitment to gender diversity shouldn't end at your human resources office. Many of the principles of discrimination-free staff management apply in the boardroom as well. These three steps will help you and your board leaders create more opportunities for women to contribute fully.

1. GET THE FACTS. Make the effort to study just how diverse your board is. Look at the proportion of women, then ask them if they think problems exist. If so, you'll have a baseline from which to make improvements.

2. MAKE DIVERSITY A PRIORITY FOR YOUR NOMINATING COMMITTEE. Ideally this all-important group will think past the old-boy network and actively seek new kinds of board members for a new day. Not only will diversifying keep your board in closer touch with your membership, it will also improve board and staff morale by offering proof of your association's support of women and minorities.

3. ELIMINATE THE ROADBLOCKS FOR BOTH POTENTIAL AND CURRENT BOARD MEMBERS. Look carefully at the list of barriers to women's career advancement under myth number four in the accompanying article. Think about which of these factors could prevent women from joining your board or being as productive as they could be once they've arrived. Another small but significant gesture: Make sure your board's social activities don't inadvertently encourage cliques (the most notorious of which is, of course, the golf outing).


* For practical advice plus real-world examples of innovative gender diversity programs that associations can adapt, get a copy of Advancing Women in Business: The Catalyst Guide to Best Practices from the Corporate Leaders (1998, Jossey-Bass).

* For well-organized research and statistics about women in the workplace, visit (Among the findings is this good news: The number of female Fortune 500 CEOs doubled from 1998 to 1999. The bad news: There are still only two.)

* For step-by-step directions on how to evaluate the fairness of your salary system, see the employers' equal pay self-audit at the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau:

* For a thorough overview of diversity's importance to the bottom line--including recent developments, best practices, and implementation steps--visit Business for Social Responsibility at Look under the workplace category for reports on both diversity and discrimination.

* For insights into what Gloria Steinem is thinking these days, look up an online conversation she led for Ms. magazine in fall 2000. Go to and click on "A Chat with Gloria Steinem."
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Taylor, Karla
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Next Article:A New Identity.

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