IN THE LEAD
By CAROL HYMOWITZ
Women Put Noses To the Grindstone, And Miss
From kindergarten through graduate school, studies show that girls outperform boys in grades, admissions and even extracurricular activities. Hard work is the driving force, as girls read and spend far more time on homework than boys.
But the very traits that propel them to the head of the class -- diligence, organization, a keen ability to follow instructions and to discern what teachers want -- aren't enough to catapult them up the corporate ladder, and may even be holding them back.
When it comes to landing a corner office or executive title, what counts a lot more than conscientiousness is daring, assertiveness and the ability to promote oneself -- all qualities men more typically demonstrate.
Men and women business-school graduates seem to start out on equal footing, landing roughly the same number of line and staff corporate jobs across industries. But three decades after they entered the business world in droves, women still aren't climbing nearly as fast or as high as their male counterparts.
A recent study of women in corporate leadership by Catalyst, a New York research organization, found that women accounted for only 15.7% of corporate-officer positions and 5.2% of top earners at Fortune 500 companies in 2002. Even more telling, the vast majority of women in top jobs are in staff rather than line positions, which rarely lead to the very top. Women hold only 9.9% of line corporate-officer jobs -- where they would be overseeing a business that earns money for their company -- compared with 90.1% for men.
Researchers and female executives cite a variety of reasons for this meager showing: male executives' reluctance to mentor women, women's exclusion from informal networks, a hesitancy to consider women for the toughest posts, and women's own struggle to balance careers and families -- sometimes leading them to settle for less-demanding roles at work.
But a big factor holding women back is their good-girl, or good-student, behavior. "Women will work themselves to death in the belief that if they do more and more, that will get them ahead, when it isn't so," says Terri Dial, former vice chairman of Wells Fargo, and president and CEO of its Wells Fargo Bank. "They think, 'If I do the work, my bosses will see it and reward me.' "
That may never happen. Even Ms. Dial, now an adviser to companies, admits that as a senior executive she took advantage of her female subordinates' willingness to be grinds. "Good girls don't advertise, only prostitutes advertise," she says. "We feel dirty promoting ourselves." As a result, women are still getting stuck in the middle, shut out of "the club at the top."
Lisa Jacobson, CEO of Inspirica, a New York high-school and college tutoring company, agrees that women often don't ask for what they deserve. In the 20 years since she founded her company, none of the female lawyers, graphic designers, public-relations experts, accountants or others she has interviewed to do work for Inspirica has ever quoted her as high a fee as their male counterparts. "The women almost always seem to say, 'I'm $125 an hour, but for you I'd charge $75, when the guy just says flatly that he charges $350," she adds.
Women must learn to negotiate artfully, says Carol Schreiber, a New Haven, Conn., executive coach. She cites the case of a woman executive at a large multinational who became perturbed when a male colleague who hadn't performed any better suddenly got a promotion. Instead of rushing in to complain to her boss when emotions were high, she spent several months building a case for herself, says Ms. Schreiber.
When the woman finally approached her boss, "she documented her accomplishments and talked about why she deserved a promotion and more pay" -- and got both, Ms. Schreiber adds.
To make changes, women need mentors and to be careful to seek a workplace culture that recognizes and rewards their talents. At Pitney Bowes, Stamford, Conn., the largest provider of corporate-mail services, about 24% of the top 300 to 350 employees are female. More than a decade ago, then-CEO George Harvey noticed that female sales employees were getting far better results than the male ones.
"He visited sales offices and found that the only people there at night were women, many of them former teachers," says Johnna G. Torsone, senior vice president and chief human-resources officer. "So he began insisting on hiring more women ... and also insisting on a level playing field, figuring he would not only get better performance from women but create competition in men and raise their performance level, too."
He tried to ensure the men and women on his staff got equal treatment and pay. Today, Pitney Bowes has a "critical mass" of women in management, which has changed the work culture. "I never go to a meeting where there isn't another woman," says Ms. Torsone.
But grooming more women for top line jobs remains a challenge. "There is still an invisible reluctance among men to trust women with the lifeblood of the company," she says, "and some women themselves have backed away from these jobs, which are tough and risky."