November 29 2011
The problem with modern boardrooms is that there are still too many suits and not enough skirts, according to a special report on women and work at The Economist. While women have been working their way up to middle management and above in the last couple of decades, there are still hardly any of women in the corner offices.
The report offers several reasons for the shortage of females in top-level positions. One reason is that women tend to work in support departments like operations or human resources, and so don't earn as much recognition when the company has a profitable year (career advice columnist Penelope Trunk notes that this trend occurs outside the world of business, as well). Another reason given is the bias among the largely white, largely male board members who might naturally feel more comfortable with recruits that look and act like (and have a similar management style as) themselves. The lack of female mentors is another problem. Male mentors are more likely to connect with promising young men over beers at the sports bar, or a Saturday afternoon golf outing. Unfortunately, the same mentor “connecting” with a promising young woman – grabbing drinks after work or frequently lunching together – may cause his colleagues to raise their eyebrows.
It's often assumed that women don't pursue demanding jobs because they instead choose to raise children, and in the aggregate, that may be the case. But among the women who do choose demanding professions, a different trend emerges. When research from Catalyst dug into the problems Deloitte (one of the big four accounting firms) was having in retaining female employees, the results were surprising. Rather than quit their jobs to raise families, as the Deloitte managers had assumed, 90% of the women were still working, just at another company. The women ranked the firm’s male-dominated/female-disenfranchising culture as their number one complaint, higher than the long hours and heavy work schedule.
Fortunately, good business managers are not stupid. Companies recognize that alienating half their talent pool is a poor business practice, and they’re taking action to retain and promote women. More companies are offering flexible schedules that emphasize getting work done, as opposed to sitting at a desk for nine hours. More research from Catalyst that found the Fortune 500 companies with the most women in top management positions saw a much better return on equity than those with the fewest. Of course, correlation is not causation, but given that groups with more women perform better, it would be unwise for “the boys upstairs” to continue a policy, formal or not, of “no girls allowed.”