Glass Ceiling? So What?

As a woman who entered the largely male economics profession some years ago, I am aware of the barriers women once faced in ica. Despondent at the lack of response to my resume, I even accepted a job as a flight attendant before finally landing a position at a think tank. But do women entering the work force today face the same obstacles their mothers did? I don’t think so: More and more, regardless of gender, success depends on hard work, ambition, and adding value to the bottom line.

Nevertheless, the debate over public-sector race- and gender-preference programs continues to rage, fueled by studies on gender wage gaps and the glass ceiling. It is hardly surprising that the federal Glass Ceiling Commission found a problem, given the perspective it brought to the issue. While it may be true that women fill less than 10 percent of the senior offices in America’s Fortune 1000 companies, this figure doesn’t provide a benchmark for the qualified labor pool from which to infer discrimination. Nor does it indicate that women face insuperable barriers to achievement in today’s marketplace.

“Glass ceiling? So what?” says Barbara Lydick, founder, president, and CEO of B&A Associates, a San Diego, CA-based management consulting firm. Lydick, who rose to the position of director at C.F. Braun and InterPacific Capital before the glass ceiling became a buzzword, conducts seminars for women in business and has developed a course entitled, “Working to Win.” Lydick’s battle cry is a quote from Miguel de Cervantes: “The woman who is resolved to be respected can make herself so even amidst an army of soldiers.” She tells women to’ move the difference issue “offstage,” and focus on increasing the bottom line.

Katherine M. Hudson, president and CEO of Milwaukee-based W.H. Brady Co., says the glass ceiling is really “made of durable plastic,” which means it must be removed, not broken. Unlike Lydick, she believes that women bring different characteristics to the workplace and that CEOs must recognize these strengths. She agrees with Lydick, however, that women who expect to succeed must “prepare themselves by taking the same subjects as all the guys” and that women must prepare themselves to move into line positions.

And this is happening. According to a Korn/Ferry study of senior corporate executives, over the last decade, the number of female executive vice presidents more than doubled, and the number of female senior vice presidents increased by 75 percent. In addition, these women plan to keep climbing the ladder. While only four out of 10 men surveyed expected to be part of their companies’ senior management team in the year 2000, six out of 10 women surveyed expected to be exercising such power.

Women are an increasing presence in the corporate boardroom, as well. “Fifty percent of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies have one or more women on the board,” notes Patricia Harrison, president and CEO of the National Women’s Economic Alliance based in Washington, DC. “The number of women appointed to corporate boards has been increasing at increasing rates, as more CEOs become aware of their talent,” says Harrison, who serves as the chairman of Guest Services in Fairfax, VA.

It is doubtful, however, that women will ever reach parity at the highest level of corporate America for one simple reason: Many do not want to. Pauline Lo Alker, president and CEO of Network Peripherals in Milpitas, CA, says more women aren’t CEOs because “we may not all aspire to be a CEO.” Her hunch is supported by the Korn/Ferry study, which found that only 14 percent of the women surveyed aspired to be CEO, while 46 percent of the men did.

“We must have the courage to dream bigger dreams,” Lo Alker says. “We must look beyond the barriers and make our dreams come true.”

Another weakness in the glass ceiling complaint is that it ignores smaller companies. According to a Dun & Bradstreet survey, American women own 7.7 million businesses, which employ 15.5 million Americans-35 percent more people than Fortune 500 companies employ worldwide. A recent government report found that from 1987 to 1992, “sales and receipts of women-owned companies increased by a whopping 131 percent.”

Women certainly are making headway in corporate America, at all levels and in firms of all sizes. In fact, The Economist recently ran a feature story that rendered men all but obsolete in the Information Age, as their comparative advantage of aggressiveness and upper body strength greatly diminishes. While I do not concur with this drastic conclusion, I do predict that over the next decade, far more women will be reading this magazine.

Sally C. Pipes is president of the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, a San Francisco-based think tank that analyzes national economic and social problems and proposes free-market solutions.


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