Though women make up over 40% of the western workforce, the firms they work for promote very few of them far. In America and Britain alike, women hold about 2% of big-company board seats. Where women do get to run big companies, it is not by climbing the ordinary corporate ladder. The lone female chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, Marion Sandler, of Golden West Financial, a Californian savings bank, shares the post with her husband. They bought the bank together. Katharine Graham, chief executive of The Washington Post Company until taking the chairmanship last year, inherited the firm from her father. Talented women are not the only losers when companies fail to hire them or later refuse them promotion. Assuming that most women are potentially as good at filling executive jobs as most men (quite a big if; we come to it later), those companies are limiting their pool of available management talent by around half. Of recent graduates, 52% in America and 44% in Europe are women. The company that fails to recruit them now will find its pool of middle managers inferior to that of a wiser employer in a few years' time; likewise, which matters more, its upper management ten years later, if (as is likely) it goes on displaying the same bias further up the ladder.
A 1990 survey of women quitting large companies, carried out by Wick, a Delaware consultancy, found that only 7% wanted to stop working altogether. The rest planned to join other firms, to work as freelance consultants or to starts their own businesses. When BP carried out a similar exercise among graduate trainees recently, the leading reason women gave for going was not marriage or motherhood, but dissatisfaction with their career prospects. At one Johnson & Johnson unit, departing female managers complained that they had felt isolated from their male colleagues.
Fellows like us
Could it be that this lack of esteem is justified? Given the chance, would women really be as good at running large firms as men? Most research on the way gender differences affect women's careers lies within the murky disciplines of comparative psychology and organisational behavior. A lot of what it says is to contradictory or anecdotal (or sometimes obviously biased from the outset) to carry much weight. Yet some findings ring true.
First people who work in large organisations have an innate tendency to hire and promote those who resemble themselves. Our managers are all white, middle-aged men, and they promote in their own image, says one woman If looking odd in positions of power is women’s first big barrier to top jobs, feeling odd in them in the second. People come up to you at a party, and say "Aren't you bright?” It isn't a compliment, says a female director at a London investment bank. Men are expected to be assertive. Women are not and often do not feel happy being so.
Made to choose between being thought pushy and being actually sett-effacing women lend to choose the latter. Within mixed groups even highly qualified women put their views less forcefully than men, and listen much more than they talk. Strident counter-examples – Margaret Thatcher is an obvious one - leap to mind just because they are so rare. In one study, researchers taped seven university faculty meetings. With one exception, the men taking part spoke more often and at greater length than their female colleagues.
Slow change Senior managers attitudes to women's employment are changing more slowly than corporate image-makers would have you believe. Women's employment is much like the environment - it's seen as essentially a window dressing question, says one senior woman executive about her bosses. If Istockmarket) analysts or anyone who mattered eared about it, then they would care too.
Tokenism abounds. Such female directors as there are disproportionately likely to be found running bits of the firm without profit-and-loss responsibility - personnel or public relations, for instance - that offer little prospect of promotion to the top posts. Alternatively, they may be part-time advisers. Of the 30 female directors on the boards of Britain's biggest 100 companies, 26 are non-executives.
II can be done
If a firm does genuinely want to use the talents of women more effectively, how should it go about it? The watershed dividing different employer' approaches is positive discrimination. Some use quota schemes. At Pitney Bowes, an American office-equipment manufacturer, 35% of all promotions must go to women, 15% to non-whites. Some companies even tie managers pay to their fulfillment of such schemes.
Positive discrimination can hurt the women it is designed to help. Bosses compelled to hire women to fulfill some quota are unlikely to take them seriously. If you feel people are just there because you had to have them, then you work around them, not with them. Then they feel under-utilised, because they probably are, says Nancy Gheen, a personnel manager at Monsanto.
The real change in the way companies think about women managers will come when they change the way they think about jobs.
Most women want to have children. Raising a family requires time off, and shorter working hours, for somebody, either husband or wife. To keep good women, firms need to find ways of giving them those things, yet using them efficiently. That normally involves letting women with small children work flexible hours, not requiring them to relocate or travel at a moment's notice, or even letting them share their jobs with someone else.
In exchange, women may have to accept lower pay, or slower promotion, until they return to full- time work. Such programmes have been dubbed “mommy-tracks”.
Companies exist to make their shareholders money, not to engineer social change. Though mommy-tracks are to firms ultimate advantage since they help keep good staff, in the short term they will sometimes prove to be inconvenient and expensive. In the irritation of having to change their ways, employers should not forget to take into account the costs of turnover among employees. Part of the money spent training those who leave has gone down the drain. And back-of-the-envelope calculation of the costs of replacing a manager of ten years standing, earning $70,000, suggests that the time it takes the new manager to get fully on top of the job is worth $25,000. If a replacement has been sought from outside, headhunters fees, advertising and interviewing could double that.
Sisters, chief executives, your interests coincide. One day your identities might too.