Women Leaders in the Workplace: The 21st Century
By: Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, PhD
It has been widely reported that for the first time in history, women are less than a percentage point away from making up the majority of the national workforce. The economic downturn has hit men harder. They held nearly 80 percent of jobs that have been lost during what is now being called the "mancession." What's more, The New York Times recently reported that some of the highly educated, high powered women who "opted out" of corporations starting in the nineties to raise children and take care of ailing elders have returned to the work.
So what does this mean for the corporate culture and the nature of work with more women in the workplace than ever? Will we see a feminist Nirvana, filled with benevolent leaders? Will the new workplace be more “kumbaya” and less "off with their heads?"
Time for a reality check. While we should be thrilled about the new numbers, there are scant few women heading large companies and who have jobs at the top. (And really, there aren't that many highly educated women who actually opted out of their careers in the first place!)
This year a record number of women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies — but you still don't need all of your fingers and toes to count them. (You don't even need all of your fingers to count those running Fortune 100s.)
Few as they are, they're doing fine at the top, thank you very much. During the economic storm of 2009, women leaders proved they can be as tough, decisive and competitive as men. USA Today reports that stocks of the 13 Fortune 500 companies run by women for all of 2009 were up an average of 50 percent. The biggest female winner was Mary Sammons, whose Rite Aid stock soared 387 percent!
So, yes, women can keep investors happy, but what about everybody else at the company? Does an estrogen heavy corporate culture emphasize relationship building over backstabbing and throat slashing? Has a surge in female leadership triggered new corporate policies that favor work life balance over the 24/7 grind? Is there less conflict, more "talking it through?" And have women brought in other women, so that the flood gates are open and unbelievably talented women are pouring into management positions?
Despite our hopes, the gender redistribution of our workforce and the small swell in female CEOs has not created a much needed seismic culture shift. The fantasy is much different than the day-to-day reality of managing a company, especially a super-sized one.
Many companies are barely weathering the storm. At Avon, for example, CEO Andrea Jung has had to figure out how to update a business model and modernize a brand that's been around since 1886. And Indra Nooyi of Pepsi is keeping her company afloat even as there's wide talk of a tax on soft drinks. While Avon and Pepsi were up 34 percent and 12 percent respectively for 2009, both Jung and Nooyi are having to make hard choices. There is little time to radically change their corporate cultures. They are putting out fires.
Many women don't want to be seen as "soft" — and others simply aren't. No one would call Carly Fiorina, the head of Hewlett Packard from 1999 to 2005, a wilting lily. According to her memoir, Tough Choices, she was sometimes referred to as Chainsaw Carly.
Neither is there a secession pipeline for women streaming into upper management positions. Last year at Xerox, CEO Anne Mulcahy handed the reins to Ursula Burns, the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company. But that kind of thing is rare. Women continue to make less than men and are clustered in the lowest salaried jobs. Overall, we are also more likely than their male counterparts to be employed in lower paying industries like education and healthcare.
Now that there are more women in the workplace, in positions of leadership and even as CEOs, we can feel hopeful. But it's important to keep it real and manage our expectations. While some women leaders may be able to redefine their roles, usher in a more authentic and transparent leadership style and emphasize work-life balance, changing entrenched corporate culture is not easy. Even when you change the leader, the stubborn culture can remain exactly the same.
And as the recession drags on, some things will become worse. With layoffs and restructuring, there are fewer people with more responsibilities working longer hours — in an already supercharged, high-tech, global, 24/7 environment. And these people will soon be mostly women.
We have to be careful. Men used to be the ones slumped over their desks, dead of heart attacks at 50. Will women become the new men? What are the consequences for women as we careen back and forth between the personal and professional? Studies show that women at every level still leave the office and work a "second shift" at home, caring for husbands and children (if they have them) and doing the lion's share of the housework and looking after elder relatives. The downsides to women's new workforce power are: Stress, pressure, exhaustion, burn out and heart attacks — exactly what used to kill hard-driving corporate men and sometimes still does.
And what of the men, the ones who have been hung out to dry during the downturn? How are they feeling about the new XY landscape? And what happens when the economy turns around? How and where will they re-enter the workplace? What will their attitude be?
I don't have any answers. But remember that even as we celebrate the numbers of working women — and offer the 15 women who are heading Fortune 500 companies a group hug — there are many important questions we still need to ask.
Ella LJ Edmondson Bell, Ph.D, author of the book, Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape (Amistad), is the founder and president of ASCENT-Leading Multicultural Women to the Top, as well as an associate professor of business administration, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University. She is considered by industry and the academy to be one of the leading experts in the management of race, gender and class in the workplace. Frequently quoted by journalists, Dr. Bell has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Black Enterprise, Newsweek, Working Mother, and Fast Company.