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Women and work - is the glass ceiling coming down?

No one disputes the dramatic changes in today's work force demographics. We clearly have an increasing human resource dependence on women and minorities. In fact, it is estimated by the Hudson Institute's Workforce 2000 report that only 32 percent of all new entrants to the labor force in this decade are (will be) white and male. And of female entrants, 80 percent will be of child-bearing age, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review.

In this artide, a new account of gender issues will be explored, including recent judicial views, barriers to change and what corporations today are doing to remove those invisible barriers forming the so-called "glass ceiling" for women. The "Glass Ceiling" initiative was sponsored by Lynn Martin, former Secretary of Labor under George Bush, to analyze the invisible barriers to career advancement for women and minorities and initiate programs for their removal.

Without doubt, minorities issues are equally relevant in the discussion of workplace diversity; however the purpose of this article is to focus only on women's issues and recent progress in this area.

Motivations for Change

What has stimulated the increasing value of cultural diversity? Why has this become a top agenda item for most major corporations? The facts are simple. There are three basic reasons: economics, moral/altruistic and legal. First, the fact is that business needs all the talented women it can get. Every CEO in the country heard the implication of the Workforce 2000 study released in 1987, which basically said the traditional source of skilled labor was drying up. Whether the percent of white and male new entrants to the work force from 1987 to the year 2000 is 15 percent (which was incorrectly reported by this report's executive summary) or 32 percent (correct), the message is still clear. In order to fill the econoroy's need for labor, we must rely more and more on women and minorities for our skill base. Consequently, few people would argue that promoting employee diversity makes good business sense. Such policy clearly assists in getting the best talent available for each position by capitalizing on the total talent pool the result being increased productivity and workplace skills.

Secondly, being fair, unbiased and non-discriminatory is the "right thing to do." No question such a corporate culture improves morale, the quality of employees and hence performance. Corporations who share these values and truly "live" them are better off in competing for key employee positions.

Finally, the legal cost of discrimination is well-known. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been the central statute under which sexual discrimination litigation has emerged. And whether discrimination is real or imagined, the cost to corporations today is high.

A Look at the Issues

Women and work present a host of issues, running the full gamut from financial and sociological, to legal and ethical. First and foremost is compensation. In a recent study published by the Bureau of National Affairs of average earnings by educational attainment and sex, it was shown that on average women earn 46 percent of the pay men earn across all educational levels as a whole. The closest earnings parity by educational level comes at the master's degree level, where women earn 70.3 percent of what men earn. For those not finishing high school, women earn only 30.8 percent of what men earn. (See Figure 1.)

While these statistics imply unequal pay for equal education, they do not necessarily imply unequal pay for equal work. However, similar studies do unarguably show that women earn less than men for a given job description.

What explains these gender inequalities? Is it discrimination? Socialization? Or a combination of both? Let's examine some recent judicial views.

One of the most frequently debated topics in cases involving gender discrimination revolves around the issue of how interested women are in nontraditional, higher-paying jobs. According to Mary Joe Frug in Women and the Law, conservative courts have ruled that women as a group display job preferences different from men and are less interested in the more competitive job positions that yield higher rewards. In EEOC vs. Sears, Roebuck & Co., the district court interpreted sex segregation as the expression of women's own choice. The EEOC claimed that Sears had engaged in sex discrimination in hiring and promoting men into commission sales jobs and relegating women to much lower-paying, non-commission sales jobs. The judge in this case threw out the EEOC's statistical analyses as "meaningless" because they were based on the faulty assumption that female sales applicants were as interested as male applicants in commission sales jobs. Basically, women are "feminine," non-traditional work is "masculine," and therefore women do not want to do it.

Since 1967, according to Ms. Frug, the "lack of interest" argument has been widely used to justify patterns of sex segregation in corporate work forces. In Gillespie vs. Board of Education, the court explained why women teachers did not want to be promoted to higher-paying administrative positions. Contrary to male teachers who are often the principal breadwinners, women were perceived to take teaching jobs to "supplement family income and leave when this is no longer necessary or they are faced with the exigencies of raising a family." No discrimination was found on this basis.

In general, the differing family roles of men and women are often used to explain women's economic disempowerment. Even though these roles are changing, no one can really deny the fact that women today as a group still assume a greater burden than men for sustaining family life. This is clearly true by virtue of childbearing itself.

Both of these cases support the view that the sexes are different in their job aspirations and work interests. But a broader view acknowledges that the sexes differ in many respects but can still aspire to the same types of work. In fact, less conservative courts suppress gender differences altogether. They accept the notion that women who are socialized the same as men desire the same work.

To counter the "lack of interest" argument, judges developed what Ms. Frug in Women and the Law called the "futility doctrine." This approach recognized that human choices are never formed in a vacuum and that people's work aspirations (and performance) are inevitably shaped by the job opportunities that have historically been available. This was clearly shown in a study of secretaries by sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter who found that secretaries grew to display work behavior and attitudes of "femininity" (e.g., devotion, submissiveness, prone to emotionality and gossip) since they were rewarded by bosses for their attitudes and personal service orientation, rather than skills and talent, and since they had no (or limited) opportunities to move upward or earn monetary rewards. Because there was limited upward mobility, the secretaries in Ms. Kanter's study valued social relations over success and mobility.

A recent body of sociological research supports an interesting explanation for sex segregation, which follows neither the conservative nor liberal court views. As presented in Ms. Frug's book, this research basically says women and men are different due to different experiences growing up (socialization), and that as a result they tend to have differing work preferences early in life. But, unlike the conservative view, "women's work preferences are formed, created, and recreated in response to changing work conditions." That is, women adapt their aspirations within their organization's framework, which sets the parameters (and rewards) for what is possible, probable, and desirable.

If you agree as do I with this research, then it is evident that Title VII and successful cultural diversity programs within our own organizations over time can alter the current workplace inequities. And, as our judicial system increasingly adopts this thinking and rejects the "lack of interest" argument, more and more employers will undertake proactive programs that will eventually provide a genderless workplace.

Barriers to Change

In reviewing independent studies and forums on cultural diversity issues, there is an amazing consistency of findings. The key barriers to change are uniformly reported as: cultural stereotyping of women; historic recruitment/promotion practices; reluctance to change/fear of diversity; lack of a network for women; lack of mentors for women and historical opportunity.

There is an active body of scientific study on social stereotypes spanning five decades. This research examines how people think about women and men and how their perceptions (and expectations) influence social behavior and hence reality. Sex stereotypes dictate the characteristics of each sex and behavior appropriate for men and women.

Men are generally thought (stereotyped) to be competent, strong, independent, active, competitive and self-confident; women are thought to be incompetent, weak, dependent, passive, uncompetitive and unconfident. According to Ms. Frug, achievement, a trait associated with men, seems to be more highly valued in our society than nurturance, a trait associated with women.

In fact, many of these key stereotypical differences of the sexes are based in myth. For example, there is no support that women are less motivated, less achieving, less intelligent than men. In many ways, women show enhanced managerial and leadership styles, including collaborative skills, when compared to men. Yet women who compete like men are considered "unfeminine," or are labelled the "women's libber" or the "Iron Maiden." (By the same token, men who display the traditional sensitivity of females are considered "wimps.") And working mothers or women committed to family are labelled as "lacking commitment."

In a well-known discrimination case, recounted by Ms. Frug in her book, Ann Hopkins sued Price Waterhouse because of alleged discrimination against her that resulted in her being denied a partnership in that esteemed accounting firm. After many years of litigation, Ms. Hopkins won the suit on the grounds of sex stereotyping. The traits that were viewed "unfeminine" of Ms. Hopkins actually fit the image of a competent, aggressive partner, according to the courts - void of sex stereotyping. In this case, Ms. Hopkins brought in $40 million worth of business to her employer - an accomplishment that was thought by the courts to have been discounted. Devaluing performance of women in male jobs (by justifying their accomplishment to good luck or hard work, not ability or competence) is a common form of sex stereotyping.

The recruitment and promotion practices of those corporations that favor white males are a clear result of cultural stereotyping. It is often reported in these organizations that women must have a "proven track record" to get promoted, whereas men are promoted on "potential." Women are also not recruited for top management jobs because they are stereotypically deemed less aggressive, tough or decisive.

Moreover, human nature accepts change reluctantly. It has frequently been said that "white males at the top hire white males." And since most American corporations are dominated by "white males at the top," there has been a real reluctance to change. Change presents uncertainty, and along with that, fears of increased competition for fewer jobs, fears of reverse discrimination, and the unsettling nature of differing points of view. This is why the integration of women into top management is not a breeze.

One of the central findings of many surveys is the lack of a meaningful network for women both inside the organization and outside. The "good 01' boy" network, or a more progressive model, is still very active for males either formally or informally. The same network is either nonexistent or just developing for women.

One of the prevalent reasons cited for individual career growth is the existence of a mentor along the way. For sure, the right mentor can mean success or failure in the business world, and having no mentor at all tends to leave the ship without a sail. Women have not traditionally had a mentoring system comparable to men, due to lack of networking and a historical lack of senior executive female role models.

Finally, a barrier to change is history itself. If you believe human choices are formed and shaped by the job opportunities that have historically been available, then it's easy to see how gender inequality perpetuates itself. In studies of blue-collar tradeswomen, it has been shown that women in traditional jobs aspired to non-traditional, higher-pay jobs when the door of opportunity was extended to them through affirmative action programs. In the world of insurance, my personal experience shows similar results - when women see an open door they aspire just as men do. Hearing about the actual success of other women is as much a career-motivating event for women as any other work experience possible.

The Platform for Change

Many corporations, including my own, have implemented aggressive programs to advance cultural diversity. Not surprisingly, these programs share many common objectives that include:

* Career planning - Watch after the careers of both men and women by a formalized career planning and development process, including valuable mentoring, internship, and other career development programs.

* Recruitment practices - Recruit qualified women for top professional and management positions and increase the numbers of women (overall) in these positions annually to reflect work force demographics.

* Training - Prepare women with the proper skills, education, and experience for advancement; make sure women are fairly represented in appropriate training programs.

* Communications/awareness - Implement a campaign in your organization that stresses the economic benefits of diversity, includes diversity/sensitivity training (as needed), communicates achievements/successes of women, and delivers one clear message to all employees that top management is serious about these issues.

* Accountability - Establish a method by which senior managers are held accountable for implementation of diversity initiatives; link compensation with performance in this area.

* Networking - Encourage networking for women, inside and outside the organization; stress the value of forming alliances.

The above actions represent systematic organizational interventions being used today to overcome the natural tendencies of organizations to stereotype women in negative or disempowered roles. These deliberate steps, which must be sensitive to reverse discrimination issues, are necessary to overcome the barriers to change. Without such actions, change will be snail-paced.


Whether it's the insurance industry, business in general, the military, or politics, women today are on the move. In the November 1992 election, women doubled their numbers in the House and tripled them in the Senate. An estimated one-third of the delegates at the 1993 annual RIMS Conference were women, including two RIMS presidents in the last three years.

Today, women-owned businesses are growing 50 percent faster than male-owned businesses. If you look at the new crop of talent coming from law schools and medical schools you will find between 40 to 50 percent are women. Over 35 percent of MBA degrees today are awarded to women, and over 40 percent of CPCUs.

Is progress being made in breaking the "Glass Ceiling"? Yes, but slowly. Former Secretary Lynn Martin, who led the Glass Ceiling initiative, recently reported "some progress," but urges the need for corporations to work harder to remove those obstacles. A recent Women's Insurance Roundtable, sponsored by the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor, reported that top management commitment and actions are working to remove barriers, but "words without actions" fail.

The stage is set in this decade for a substantial rise in the careers of women. There is no doubt women are skilled and ready to enter combat in the boardroom, just as they are in the military. Yet the social threads of our society will require the "Glass Ceiling" to be dismantled pane by pane, and these changes will come only with increased support from the top echelons of corporate America.
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Author:Hill, R. Jane
Publication:Risk Management
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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