Boys club

If men and women have equal opportunity in business, why are so few women at the top? The New York Times takes a look.

Published December 19, 2006 1:15AM (EST)

This weekend, the New York Times ran a long piece on women in business, with the cutesy title "How Suite It Isn't: A Dearth of Female Bosses." The suite in question is the chief executive's office, and the findings on which the piece is based come from a Catalyst analysis we reported on back in July, which found that fewer than 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female, and only 16.4 percent of corporate officers at Fortune 500 companies are women. (For the true conspiracy theorists among you, we'd like to note that the percentage of women in Congress reached an all-time high of 16.448 this year.) The piece also echoes the Catalyst conclusion that companies exclude women to their own potential detriment, as female corporate officers and board members tend to have good returns as well as innovative environments and more diverse staff.

Even though the piece is retracing familiar ground, it's interesting to read about the businesswomen it profiles, who share their successes as well as their obstacles, from having to fly cross-country when nine months pregnant to seal a business deal, to opting not to take the recommended time off after a mastectomy for fear of seeming frail, to hearing that "women don't do those jobs." One subject, former Autodesk CEO and current board chairwoman Carol Bartz, laments on the one hand that "there is a whole lot of hand-wringing going on with women ... they get the high-power degrees and then they drop back because they tell themselves they're not going to get very far anyway. I think they look around and wonder whether the struggle is worth it or not" but acknowledges on the other hand that it's a lot easier to decide the struggle is worth it if you can pay for good childcare. "The problem with balance is that it only works if you can buy some balance," she admits. Bartz also expresses a lack of interest in mentoring programs for other professional women, but acknowledges that her own career benefited greatly from networking.

In that vein, the Times notes that women who achieve success in the corporate world may be reluctant to help other women into similarly powerful positions: "There is little consensus among [women in the business world] over how to approach the topic of women in power, or, in fact, whether the issue should even be addressed. Representatives of nearly all of the Fortune 500 female chief executives contacted for this article said that their bosses were either 'too busy' or did not want to participate in an article about female C.E.O.s. They said that these executives preferred to be acknowledged for their accomplishments, rather than for being women." This observation seems to speak to a complicated dynamic; women who have achieved against the odds might be reluctant to see the path made easier for others, and given current gender disparity among corporate officers, there may be little workplace benefit to being seen as a woman pioneering on behalf of other women rather than one of the boys.

Especially since the Times is pretty frank about the reasons for the dearth of women at the top, citing the fact that "a number of women leave their careers -- sometimes by choice, sometimes not -- to focus on rearing families. The remaining pool suffers from a lack of networking or mentoring programs ... [and] many other women end up in dead-end staff positions." As for the limited options and lack of flexibility that women often face, there's the bald admission that "analysts and executive women also say that one of the biggest roadblocks between women and the c-suite is the thick layer of men who dominate boardrooms and corner offices across the country." Bartz tells the Times, "The men in the boardroom and the men at the top are choosing and tend to choose who they are comfortable with: other men." Even Bartz, who has achieved great success in her field, found that "male counterparts and supervisors shook the corporate ladder ever more fiercely with each rung that she and other pioneering women of her generation ascended," Times writer Julie Creswell reports. That gender-based biases continue to control some parts of the business world shouldn't come as a total surprise -- and the fact that bias continues to fester in some sectors doesn't mean there's no merit-based opportunity for women at all. But the Catalyst analysis certainly suggests a substantial problem. Even if the Times-supplied image of guys in suits shaking the ladder to keep women from climbing its rungs doesn't tell the whole story, it's pretty chilling nonetheless.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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