Powerful women are once again making business news.
This week, Young & Rubicam named Ann Fudge as its chairman and CEO -- making her the only black, female chief executive of a major advertising agency. Meanwhile, omnipotent domestic goddess Martha Stewart will be given the unauthorized TV bio treatment this Monday in NBC's "Martha Inc.," starring Cybill Shepherd as the ultimate corporate diva. So on one end of the spectrum we have a historic milestone, or, at least, a barricade stormed, and on the other a cautionary tale that illustrates that the gene for avarice is not carried on the Y chromosome.
Fudge's appointment and the Stewart telepic will no doubt reignite the age-old debate: Would things be any different if women ran corporate America?
For example, would Wal-Mart, the largest company in the world, be staring down the barrel of the largest employment discrimination lawsuit in history, if the distaff influence were felt in the boardroom as well as the stockroom? The global big boxer is charged with consistently treating its 700,000 female employees as second-class citizens, a state of affairs some have attributed to the dearth of women at the top.
You may have heard that Wal-Mart warmed the hearts of its apple pie clientele by pulling three men's magazines off the shelf because they feature scantily clad starlets. But, according to lawsuits, behind the magazine racks, Wal-Mart fosters a testosterone-drenched corporate culture in which strip clubs are considered an ideal place to conduct a business meeting and women aren't promoted because they "don't have the right equipment."
And why does the business press continue to lionize the company -- Business Week recently headlined a laudatory article "How Wal-Mart Keeps Getting It Right" -- despite the fact that it has a history of firing workers who try to unionize, paying its hourly employees, on average, $7 to $8 a hour, well below the industry standard, and is being sued in more than 30 states for refusing to pay workers overtime and, in some cases, even locking store doors and not allowing workers to leave when their shifts were done?
A new study commissioned by the Committee of 200 -- a national organization of businesswomen -- found that when it comes to key benchmarks such as pay and boardroom representation, women are still lagging far behind their male counterparts. For instance, only seven Fortune 500 companies are headed by a female CEO, and less than 16 percent of the officers at these corporations are women. Far from surprising news to anyone who reads the business press or works in a large company or, well, to anyone, really.
According to the study, if current trends continue, it will be 20 years before women in corporate America catch up. And, if I were Bill Bennett, I might even put a little money on 200 years as a safer bet.
But the question remains, when they finally do catch up, will female execs use their power to overhaul corporate culture? Or will they only catch up by becoming as corrupt as their male counterparts?
We can't see into the future, but we can see into the past. So, hoping to find a clue to how this gender-balanced future might play out, I decided to see how women execs have conducted themselves amid some of the more notorious corporate scandals of recent memory.
The evidence I found was conclusively inconclusive.
On the one hand, a small number of heroes to emerge from the fetid bog of corporate malfeasance were actually heroines -- including noted whistleblowers Sherron Watkins at Enron and Cynthia Cooper at WorldCom, two of Time Magazine's Persons of the Year.
That's not really surprising, since we now know that women are more likely to blow the whistle on unethical behavior than their male co-workers. The explanations for this run the gamut. Some have speculated that it stems from the fact that most women are still regarded as outsiders in the corporate world, thus freeing them to do the right thing instead of the convenient thing. Others claim it's the ironic result of women being chronically underpaid: They have less to lose and so are more willing to put their jobs at risk. Of course, both of these factors give females an ax to grind. Very often, payback is, quite literally, a bitch.
Whatever the motivation, there can be no disputing the cost associated with such courage under fire. Nearly 50 percent of all whistleblowers are fired -- and 25 percent not only lose their jobs, they lose their homes as well.
On the other hand, the corporate scandals show that there is no shortage of women willing to play by the Good Ol' Boys Club rules. Women like the freshly indicted Lea Fastow, wife of former Enron CFO Andy Fastow. Mrs. Fastow was recently carted off in handcuffs, charged with money laundering, wire fraud and filing false tax returns. Sadly, behind every great corporate crook, there is, very often, a woman.
A graduate of Tufts University and the holder of an MBA from Northwestern's prestigious Kellogg School of Management, Lea Fastow was an assistant treasurer at Enron before leaving the company in 1997 to be a stay-at-home mom. She is also heir to a grocery and real estate fortune. Nevertheless, federal prosecutors claim that she played Bonnie to Andy's Clyde by helping her hubby rip off the company using kickbacks from sham partnerships. Perhaps the Fastows' wedding vows included a promise to love, honor and chisel, 'til conviction do us part.
And then there is Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy who, like so many of her male brethren, has figured out how to see her compensation continue to climb while presiding over book cooking, fraud and plummeting stock value. To be specific, she was rewarded with a 48 percent increase in salary and bonuses last year while the company had to "restate" its earnings by 36 percent, pay a $10 million penalty to settle SEC charges of deceiving investors, and saw its share price drop by a quarter. Looks like, given the opportunity, the Xerox honcha simply copied the men.
Clearly, the mere presence of more women in positions of power will not, by itself, be enough to guarantee a change in corporate behavior. Given the current business culture, the temptation for piggish behavior is far too great for both genders. And, in any case, we can't wait 20 years to find out if an infusion of estrogen would clean up the corporate muck. So we've got to get out the hoses today and wash down the entire corporate establishment without fear or favor. If something better -- more ethical, more honest, less narcissistic -- can rise in its place, then I, for one, wouldn't care if it were dominated by men, women, or chimpanzees of either sex.